They are called by several different names. In Iran, they are known as dolmeh, In Greece, they are called dolmas or dolmades. They are koupepia in Cyprus, tolma in Armenia, yarpaq dolması in Azerbaijan, yebra in Syria and warak enab in Lebanon.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m talking about stuffed grape leaves. That’s all I knew them as when growing up in Crookston, Minn. One of my childhood friends, Ron Taylor, used to share ones his Lebanese mother made. Aggie — here maiden name was Salem — always made grape leaves for the holidays. That’s when Ron and I would swap grape leaves for turkey and stuffing, which couldn’t have suited me finer.
I moved away from Crookston after college, albeit only to Grand Forks, North Dakota, just 25 miles west on U.S. Highway 2, so stuffed grape leaves were few and far between. It was until a friend at work, Denise Enger, herself part Lebanese, taught me how to make grape leaves that things changed. Her grape leaves were a little different than Aggie’s but nearly as good.
There is nothing like making this delicacy in late spring or early summer, when the tender green leaves are at their finest, unlike the ones that you find in supermarkets, which are usually preserved in brine. I recently cooked up a pot of leaves, taking advantage of our own grape vines. The result reaffirmed my thoughts about fresh leaves being better.
And you know what? I still can’t get enough of them.
40 to 50 tender grape leaves about the size of your palm
3 or 4 flat beef bones
1 16-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 cup long grain rice, rinsed in water
1 pound ground chuck
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Rinse fresh grape leaves in water. Remove stems. Set aside.
Mix all the other ingredients except the tomatoes and tomato sauce. Place 1 tablespoon or so of filling across each leaf. Fold bottom of leaf up, fold both sides in, and roll away from you.
Place bones on the bottom of a deep saucepan or Dutch oven. Arrange stuffed leaves vertically on the top of the bones. Press leaves down by placing an inverted plate on top of the leaves. (This also will hold them in place while they cook.)
Mix the tomatoes and sauce and pour around the outside edge of the saucepan, using a knife to push stuffed grape leaves aside. Cover and simmer on a low flame for 40 minutes or until leaves are tender.
½ cup finely grated cucumber
1 cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, grated
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
Place the cucumber on a towel and gently squeeze out a bit of the excess water.
In a medium bowl, combine the cucumber, yogurt, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt and dill. Chill until ready to use.