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How to Make Any Kind of Dolmathes (and Roll 'Em Like a Pro) Without a Recipe

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One of my earliest memories is being at my parent’s Greek restaurant as a three-year-old. They had tried and failed to put me in preschool, as I much preferred being at the restaurant, playing toddler "maître d'" (a.k.a hassling customers). But my favorite task was playing sous chef to mother in the kitchen. I wasn’t tall enough to see over the thick butcher's block work area, so my ma would sit me on top of it and let me help season the large tubs of meats, dressings, or meatballs.

Mom never used recipes—there were no standardized recipe sheets in a binder to follow, no classic, rigid techniques. She played by her own rules. She would season things by sight, pour liquid without measuring it. She made perfect pilafi rice by simply using a large saucepan and approximating a ratio of stock to rice. I would place small handfuls of rice into the meat for dolmathes (a.k.a. dolmas) until she gave me the nod of approval indicating that I’d added enough. Mom makes killer dolmathes, and it is her (not) recipe that I still follow. To this day when I eat these, I am transported back to my childhood at the restaurant.

You can make these!
You can make these! Photo by Alpha Smoot

Dolmas are as diverse as they are popular. They have many names, but when it comes right down to it, they include a vegetal wrapper, usually brined grape leaves, stuffed with deliciousness: protein; aromatics; rice; and are cooked in tasty stock or broth. Dolmathes can be vegetarian, or have meat, but they always have rice, a wrapper, and are cooked in liquid. Every year for my father’s birthday, we would have a variation of dolmathes made with cabbage instead of grape leaves and served with avgolemono sauce.

Just the basics, please!

  • Pick a wrapper and get it ready for filling. Jarred grape leaves can be used right away. Leaves with large stems should have those stems cut out, and any raw leaf should be blanched in salty water until flexible.
  • Assemble 1 1/2 to 2 pounds ground meat, 1 cup raw (white) rice, a chopped onion (or an allium cousin) and a couple minced cloves of garlic, any spices you might like to add, a bit of olive oil, a tomato (seeded and diced), 3 to 4 cups of stock, and 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice. Combine all but the stock and lemon juice. Click here for a vegetarian variant!
  • Roll a "fat finger's worth" of filling into each of the wrappers, folding in the sides as you go. Arrange the rolls in a heavy pot with a lid, cover with the stock, bring to a boil, and then let simmer for 35 to 40 minutes, covered. Let sit 10 minutes before pouring over with lemon juice.
  • Top with avgolemono sauce if you like! Click here for the recipe.

Read on for a more in-depth how-to!

First things first, decide what kind of wrapper to use:

Traditionalists will want go with grape leaves. You can buy a jar of them (brined) in the international section of the grocery store. If you live on a Napa Valley vineyard or grow grapes, of course, you can use the fresh, medium-sized leaves—just make sure they are pesticide-free, and blanch them in salty water for 3 to 5 minutes before using. Some other options I like are savoy cabbage—or, if you want to do an Asian-inspired roll, you could use napa cabbage stuffed with ground pork and shrimp. The possibilities are endless!

Collard greens, destemmed and blanched.
Collard greens, destemmed and blanched. Photo by Alpha Smoot

If using cabbage, cut out the core and steam (rather than blanch) for 10 minutes to make the leaves more pliable. Swiss or rainbow chard, kale, collards, or any hearty leaf work great as well, but you will want to blanch them before using, and remove the stems. One jar of grape leaves would be equivalent to a good-sized head of cabbage, and about the same as two bunches of large leafy greens. The size of your rolls will vary depending on the wrapper you use.

Want to replicate the ones we made in these photos? We used collard greens (and filled them with pork, onion, garlic, ginger, and red chile flakes).

Then pick a protein:

You want 1 1/2 to 2 pounds of ground protein. Ground chuck, turkey, pork, or lamb all work well; mixing lamb and beef together is also very common.

Ready to roll.
Ready to roll. Photo by Alpha Smoot

If you want to do vegetarian dolmas, just up the amount of rice to 2 cups and parboil it: Add the uncooked 2 cups of rice to a pan with 2 cups of boiling water. Reduce the heat to medium and wait (about 5 to 7 minutes) until that water is absorbed, then removed from the heat. Additionally, double the amount of alliums, and sauté them together with your rice in some olive oil. You can add about a handful of toasted pine nuts and dried currants as well.

Chop some alliums:

These are usually large yellow onions, diced small. I use one baseball-sized onion; alternately, you can use Bermuda, Walla Walla, or white onion—or up to four shallots (and don't forget double the amount of onion for the vegetarian variation). Two or three cloves of minced garlic are essential as well.

Season away!

Salt, pepper, dried mint, and fresh flat-leaf parsley are my go-to seasonings, the salt and pepper being necessary in all varieties. You need about half a tablespoon each salt and dried mint, about a teaspoon of pepper, and a handful of chopped parsley. A good glug or two of olive oil (1/4 cup) adds savory richness; I usually add it directly to the filling if I’m making meat dolmathes, and pour it in with the stock in the cooking process in vegetarian.

Other spices can be added in teaspoon-sized doses; cumin (delicious in vegetarian dolmas), chile flakes, and smoky paprika are all interesting additions to consider.

Choose the rice you'll add to the filling:

One cup of raw white, basmati, jasmine, or long grain rice all work well. I have even used sushi rice with good results. I used brown rice once, but it never got soft enough—if you want to venture into that territory I would suggest using a "quick-cook" variety or precooking, but white varieties can be used with the most ease and predictability.

It's okay if they don't all fit in one layer! Just stack them up.
It's okay if they don't all fit in one layer! Just stack them up. Photo by Alpha Smoot

And the liquid you'll cook them in:

You'll need three to four cups of good-flavored stock, making sure it has a good amount of salt for seasoning the rolls while they cook. You should have enough to cover all your rolled dolmathes in the pot. You can also consider using a mix of stock and dry white wine.

I also add...

  • One large tomato, seeded and diced small. I know many varieties leave this out, but we always included one, sometimes two, usually roma.
  • A good bit of olive oil (about 1/4 cup), for richness.
  • Half a cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice, for post-cooking acid balance.
  • To cook, you'll need a large, heavy-bottomed pot for cooking—think Dutch oven, French oven, or stock pot— and a medium-sized, heat-safe plate to place on top of rolls for cooking.

Here's how to make them!

Get your (brined or blanched) wrappers of choice ready by removing stems and placing them flat on a plate in a stack. (If you are making the vegetarian version, now is the time to sauté your onions with your raw rice, then adding the water to parcook your rice, and toast your pine nuts in a hot skillet.)

In a large bowl combine meat, sautéed onions and garlic, seasonings, olive oil, tomato, and rice. Mix well to combine.

Ta da! If using a leaf you've cut the stem out of, just fold in the "legs" before rolling.
Ta da! If using a leaf you've cut the stem out of, just fold in the "legs" before rolling. Photo by Alpha Smoot

Place one wrapper, "top" side down (meaning that the part that will be on the inside will have the seams) on your work surface, and then place a "fat finger’s worth" of filling on the leaf (at the bottom of the leave, its widest part, or—with cabbage and other destemmed leaves, in the middle, above the “legs” on either side of the spot where the stem was). Use more for larger leaves, less for smaller leaves, making sure all of the meat mixture can be enclosed. Roll it from the bottom up, like a burrito (or, as some say, like a cigar—I don’t like to make a food/cigar comparison, but whatever helps folks visualize), folding the sides (and the "legs," if using a leaf you’ve destemmed) in as you go. Roll tightly. Continue until you run out of meat or wrappers.

If you have leftover meat, we always roll them into meatballs and cook on top of the rolls—oftentimes, these are eaten as "testers" before the rolls are devoured. Leftover leaves can be used to line the cooking vessel, but it isn’t necessary, just a way to have a waste-free cooking experience.

In a heavy-bottomed pot, place the rolls in layers, cover with a heat-safe plate, and add the stock (and the 1/4 cup of olive oil if you haven’t already added it to the filling). Cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 35 to 40 minutes. Let stand for at least 10 minutes before pouring the lemon juice over them and eating them.

More please.
More please. Photo by Alpha Smoot

If you want to make them extra-tasty, you can use my method for avgolemono sauce: Whip 4 eggs until light and foamy, beat in 2 teaspoons cornstarch, and temper in 2 cups of cooking liquid. Heat the sauce mixture in a small saucepan over medium heat until thick and bubbly, and then pour, family-style, right over the rolls in the pan (or you can plate them, if you like, and then pour the sauce over, but we would always just eat them out of the pan). Optional but delicious.

I will end by quoting the great Julia Child: "The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude." I think this quote encapsulates the beauty of "not recipes" and that the best part of cooking is breaking down boundaries, and creating food using the ingredients that you love to feed the people you love. Happy cooking!

Tell us about the domathes you're dreaming up in the comments below!

Tags: dolmas, dolmathes, greek food