Let’s Eat — A Writer’s Guide to Cooking
When my wife and I were making cabbage dolma the other day, it occurred to me that I had yet to add the recipe to this strange and eclectic food column of mine. To begin, dolma is the general term our family uses for grape leaves, peppers, cabbage, and squash stuffed with meat, rice, and several other ingredients. The word is either Armenian or Turkish in origin; I’m not sure. Some families we know also use the word sarma.
The recipe we follow comes down to us from my father’s mother, who was born in Moush, in Western Armenia, in the year 1900. When I was growing up, she so often smelled like dolma that even now, when I inhale its aroma, I automatically think of her.
More often than not, when we make dolma, we combine grape leaves, cabbage, and peppers in the same pan. But as we happen to be low on leaves at the moment, this time around we focused on cabbage. Indeed, when I was a kid, cabbage was my favorite. I also helped my mother pick leaves in our vineyard and ready them in our kitchen for canning, but the fascinating subject of leaf-canning will have to wait for another time.
The meat mixture is simple enough. Dolma can be made with ground beef only, or, if ground lamb is available, the two can be combined. We prefer the combination, at about one-third to one-half lamb. The beef we used the other day contained about fifteen percent fat; the lamb, I’m sure, was a little more. A little leaner is fine too, but if the meat is too lean, the flavor won’t be quite as good, and the mixture itself tends to become too firm and compressed when it’s handled.
Okay. Place the meat in a large bowl. (The other day, we used about two and a half pounds.) First, sprinkle on a thin layer of salt and pepper, and add a touch of cayenne. Then add some dry purple basil (rehan). Next, sprinkle on a handful of fine bulghur. (Bulghur adds flavor, and when it cooks it expands slightly and helps keep the meat together.) Now add a handful of regular long-grain rice. After that, finely chop a medium-sized yellow or red onion, and spread it out on top of the meat and other ingredients. Sprinkle a little salt on the onion. Finely chop part of a large green bell pepper — say a full-length section about three-quarters of an inch wide, and add it. Next, chop up a good-sized handful of parsley and throw that in. On top of all this, spoon on about half an eight-ounce can of tomato sauce (unless you have canned tomatoes on hand).
(Note: I rely completely on my sense of smell to arrive at the right flavor. Years ago, we used to taste the meat, but these days we feel less than safe doing so.)
The ingredients in place, use a wooden spoon to incorporate them into the meat, then turn the meat over as best as you can. Add another layer of salt, pepper, and basil, and follow with a similar amount of bulghur and rice. Then add a little more tomato sauce and mix some more. With the spoon, try to expose any sides of the meat that might not have been seasoned. Add a little more salt, pepper, basil, bulghur, and rice. When it’s all said and done, you should use about half a cup of bulghur and about three handfuls of rice. As for the other seasonings, I honestly have no idea how much I use. I simply trust my nose to tell me if the mixture has enough salt and pepper. If the mixture smells flat at all, add a little more. (I only add cayenne once, however. Too much would ruin the flavor. Better no cayenne than too much.)
Once you’ve achieved the right aroma, the next step is to make sure you have enough tomato sauce in the mixture so that it will stay together after you’ve mixed it thoroughly by hand. The other day, we used about three-quarters of an eight-ounce can. Moisten your hand slightly, then mix the meat thoroughly and pat it all together into one round mass.
Now it’s time to prepare the cabbage. For this amount of meat, we used three smallish green cabbages. When you’re selecting your cabbage, choose heads that are looser and lighter in weight, rather than the ultra-dense crunchy kind. In a large pan, get some water boiling. After discarding the outside leaf, wash the cabbage, then cut out the stem as far down as you can easily go without damaging the surrounding leaves — about an inch to an inch and a half. Place the cabbage in gently boiling water. It floats. Turn it over and move it around so the water can get into the stem area and under the leaves. As the leaves begin to soften, use a fork in one hand to steady the cabbage, and a knife in the other to gently separate the outermost layer of leaves. Take it easy so they don’t tear. The leaves don’t come off all at once. As the water works its way under the new layers, the leaves continue to loosen. Continue the process until you’re down to the center of the cabbage. It should only take about five minutes of fiddling with the cabbage to have it all apart. As you work your way toward the center, you can begin to remove the outer leaves from the water so they don’t get too soft. They can finish cooking after they’ve been stuffed.
After the cabbage leaves are all separated, they need to be trimmed. Cut out and discard the tough part of the rib. The very biggest leaves can then be cut in half along the rib, each half being large enough to make one dolma. Those a little smaller will be ideal for one dolma. And those that are even smaller — you guessed it — are perfect for making small dolma. The rule is, any leaf big enough to be closed around the meat, is big enough for dolma. Don’t worry, you’ll get a feeling for this as you go along.
Once the cabbage is trimmed, you’re ready to start stuffing the leaves. Place a leaf in the palm of one hand, and with the other hand pick up a small portion of the meat and squeeze it and shape it lightly into the right shape for the individual leaf. Then put the meat at the lower end of the leaf and roll the leaf into what might pass for a short husky cigar. (Wow — I really sound like a professional chef, don’t I?) The ends will remain open. Then put the dolma in the center of the pan, beginning at one edge. When the center row is finished, build another row snugly beside it, and continue until the bottom of the pan is covered. (Note: to keep the bottom rows in good shape during cooking, first cover the bottom of the pan with a single layer of cabbage leaves.) Build the second layer in the opposite direction, and the third in the original direction.
For added flavor, you can stuff one or even several peppers. Or, you can simply cut a pepper into strips and lay them across the top of the dolma. This is what we did the other day, using an Anaheim pepper, which added a nice little bite to the flavor. We also cut about half a zucchini into slices about half an inch thick and placed those on the dolma, in the center part of the pan. Or, if you like, you can cut the squash into thicker pieces and scoop out the center portion and stuff the squash with meat.
Now we’re almost done. Squeeze some lemon juice over the top of the dolma. About half a lemon should do. Then dribble some tomato sauce over the top, but leave a lot of the dolma showing through. Depending on the size of your pan, put one or two plates face down on the dolma to hold them in place while they cook. Add water until the dolma is covered, but don’t drown it. The dolma should cook on low heat (bubbling lightly, but steadily) for forty-five to fifty minutes. When it’s done, turn off the heat and leave the plates in place for an hour or two. Dolma is always best when it’s had a chance to sit for a few hours. It’s every bit as good, if not better, the second day. On the third day, it’s still great. Usually, to minimize handling, we serve it from the original pan. Dolma is great with rice pilaf. For an added treat, add a spoonful or two of homemade madzoon to the top of individual servings. The flavors are made for each other.
Also by William Michaelian
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