Once a year I hold a merry event that I fondly call DolmaFest. It’s usually held in August or September, when the eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes are bursting with sun-kissed ripeness. Most summer vegetable crops that hit Yerevan’s markets are grown throughout the plains of Armavir and the Ararat valley by small farmers tilling up to 20 hectares or more of black, nutrient rich soil. Although dolma was more of a fall and winter food growing up back in Boston, dolma can be found year round in high-quality Armenian restaurants in Yerevan. I like to think that I’m easily a contender against the most experienced dolma chefs around. Here’s why.
I prefer lean meat. I am not a fan of greasy dolma. Armenians like their meats fatty. Personally I can’t stand seeing a layer of grease on top of the dolma juice, it’s just gross. That feeling of thick grease that coats the roof of my mouth after eating someone’s cooking is even more disgusting. The butcher that I go to right across the street has some of the freshest, succulent beef around. I choose a nice chunk of rump or chuck and they grind it up for me. Done deal.
Dolma usually comes in two varieties. There’s vegetable dolma, otherwise known as “summer dolma” in Armenia, and grape leaf dolma, which is more commonly called sarma in culinary terminology. Sarma is wrapped, whereas dolma is filled. The etymology of these words is up for debate, since so many cross-mingling cultures once within the Ottoman Empire consider dolma as a staple of their cuisines—Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Arabs, and Bosnians all make it. Needless to say, when I hold DolmaFest, I do it right. I usually do dolma, sarma, and sometimes what is known as faux sarma (I just made that up) or yalanchi, which has a meatless filling of rice, sautéed onions, various spices such as cayenne pepper and allspice, and plenty of olive oil as well as lemon.
First is Le Dolma. I look for medium-sized tomatoes and eggplants that are not too plump but also not too skinny, either, and the straighter the aubergine, the better. I also like to use both red and green peppers. The Armenian varieties are not typical bell peppers. They are a bit smaller, certainly sweeter, and have a curvy, puckered shape with a slightly tapered end.
I am proud to be an Armenian-American, and what better foundation to start with but an old school Armenian-American recipe. Armenian American Cook Book by Rose Baboian is my go-to resource for classic Armenian cuisine. Just like all chefs I improvise on the ingredients. This one calls for beef (or lamb, traditionally the standard meat in Western Armenian cuisine) on the fatty side, but obviously that’s not my thing. Spices include cayenne pepper, allspice, salt and pepper. You need some tomato paste as well for color and a rich juice. She calls for canned tomatoes, but why use that if you have the real deal? Prime, ripe Armenian tomatoes literally rupture as you slice into them. The skin is quite thin and delicate and the pulp simply oozes out of the fruit, no matter how it’s cut. Regardless of how careful you are, summer tomato pieces won’t ever look perfect. And that’s a good thing.
Some cooks use pearl rice for dolma, claiming that its glutinous properties are ideal for holding the mixture together. I prefer long-grain basmati rice. The ingredients are kneaded together, and I’ve found that five minutes of mixing suffice. I used a kilo of beef for my filling, and whatever was left over I scooped into a plastic container then froze.
Coring the vegetables is the most annoying process in preparing dolma. In the past I’ve used different utensils ranging from steak knives to butter knives to teaspoons or a combination of all three. Not having the proper tool makes the dolma prep process very time consuming, not to mention a major pain in the ass. But chefs can rejoice that Armenia’s neighbors to their west produce some fantastic coring tools (most likely designed by Armenians) made specifically for dolma. I own two different gadgets, one that is more suitable for peppers and another, a lovely birthday gift to me mind you, handles the tomatoes and eggplant. Usually I switch between the two, depending on the shape and size of the particular veggie.
It’s important not to overfill the vegetables, otherwise they will explode as the rice expands. (That never happened to me. Okay, once or twice.) I usually fill about half to three-quarters full. My mother taught me to slice the tops off the tomatoes and use them as hats once the filling is in place. The peppers and eggplants go in first, followed by the tomatoes. The vegetables have to be arranged in a way so that they are snug in the pot but not overcrowded or crushed together. Then a mixture of lemon juice, cored tomato pulp, and water is poured about half to three-quarters full into the pot. Mine is a Cuisinart 10-quart anodized nonstick stockpot, which is just great for cleanup.
The sarma can be problematic. The most important thing to be concerned about is the quality of the grape leaves. They need to be tender, not to thick and rough, but also not so delicate as they can tear easily. The proper way of preparing fresh grape leaves for sarma is to place them in boiling, salty water for about 8-10 seconds, then remove promptly. You can then bottle them or use immediately. My mother picks the leaves from her vine (which was a cutting from my grandmother’s vine), stacks and places them into a Ziploc bag, and freezes them until she’s ready to cook up a batch of sarma. In late spring produce markets actually sell bunches of fresh grape leaves for pickling. I use store-bought bottled leaves, and the only way of knowing which brand is best is through experimentation. Some great videos are available on YouTube to learn the art of wrapping sarma.
Place the grape leaf on a smooth surface, shiny side down. Usually a heaping teaspoon of mixture—which can be the same meat mixture used for the dolma—is enough. Too much mixture and the leaf will rupture. Unless you are a seasoned chef hailing from the sarma dens of Aleppo or somewhere a few will most likely rupture, anyway (not that I know anything about that). You fold in the larger wings of the leaf then begin rolling up from the stem. As you approach the tip of the leaf, fold in the smaller wings. A proper sarma should look like a cigar, about a third to a half-inch thick. Sarma should be tightly packed in the pot, but obviously not too tight. Make sure you place several peeled garlic cloves into the pot before you cook, in between the layers of sarma and on top. My grandmother Lucine, who was born in the town of Ourfa, used to place lamb spare ribs on top of the sarma and they would steam, the meat collapsing off the bone. Fill the pot just below the top of the sarma with water.
I fell into the habit of sprinkling some Herbes de Provence on many of my dishes, and dolma is no exception to the rule. Herbes de Provence is just wonderful, and it gives the dolma a delicate, fragrant aroma.
For both dolma and sarma you need to weigh it all down with a heavy dinner plate before cooking. Some people use a flat rock on top of a plate. In the Middle East you can find special weights manufactured especially for dolma made from ceramic (I wish I had one; my Ourfatsi grandmother gave one to my mom as a wedding gift). Cover the pot, bring the dolma to a boil then reduce to low heat and simmer. Cooking time is about an hour or less.
Dolma and sarma are the ultimate comfort foods. The hearty, steaming medley of spice, beef and rice, the mélange of perfectly steamed pristine vegetables grown in the majestic fields of Ararat, that sweet, alluring aroma infiltrating the nasal passages. Nothing can satisfy hunger and simultaneously ease tension after a hard day’s work like a heaping serving, or two, of dolma. Serve with garlic infused whole-milk yoghurt on the side. Divine.