After last Sunday’s rather simple recipe, this was a week in which my ambition almost got the better of me. It wasn’t enough that I would learn how make dolma (stuffed vegetables) for the first time…No, I had to go and make FOUR kinds of dolma! Well, my pain is your pleasure, so you can drool over the pics and recipe, and then decide which one or two look tasty enough to make at home. Which will you go for? Cabbage, vine leaves, aubergine or onion?
Ever since I spotted vine leaves at my local Turkish grocers’, I’ve known what I’d be cooking for Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanis love their dolma, and they love their plov, or pilaf. Since I’d already cooked a pilaf for Afghanistan, I jumped for a chance to try the former. Dolmasi or dolma (it seems the two words are synonymous) came over from Turkey, and is eaten in many of the countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire. In the ‘A’s alone, I’ve already passed up the opportunity to cook dolmasi for Armenia and Albania.
The best-known variant involves stuffing vine leaves (yep, the leaves that grow on grape vines) with a mixture of meat, rice, herbs and/or spices. Each country has its own twist on these delicious morsels. What’s more, in this part of the world people stuff pretty much any vegetable they can get their hands on.
This is the first week, believe it or not, when I’ve not had a friend from the country I’m cooking who I could turn to for advice. So I did a little more research than usual, and found that the veggies that Azerbaijanis make dolma from vary widely with the season. In spring and summer, fresh vine leaves and luscious, jewel-like tomatoes, aubergines and sweet peppers are in abundance – the dolma in these ‘fat’ months are hearty and colourful. In autumn and winter, however, cooking requires a little more creativity. In the ‘lean’ seasons, Azerbaijanis turn to cabbage leaves and onions to make dolma.
After a slight mishap involving a complete lack of minced lamb ANYWHERE in Brussels, combined with a lack of open butchers ANYWHERE on a Sunday, I finally present to you ‘four seasons dolma’. Its a recipe I’m rather proud of having cobbled together by myself (using tips picked up here, here, here and here). It involves:
For spring, Yarpag dolmasi – stuffed vine leaves.
For summer, Badimjan dolmasi – stuffed eggplant.
For autumn, Kalam dolmasi – stuffed cabbage leaves.
For winter, Sogan dolmasi – stuffed onions.
The stuffings usually vary a little from vegetable to vegetable (tomato paste often seems to be added to the filling for the last two, for example), but I made one filling for them all, to keep things simple. I served them all with a garlicky yoghurt sauce, as is traditional.
What Did I Need?
- 1 cup of rice (I used brown rice, but any medium or long-grain will work)
- 400 grams of minced lamb, mutton or beef (the first two are more traditional)
- 1 small onion, chopped finely
- 2 cups of lamb stock (optional)
- olive oil
- half a cup of dill, chopped
- half a cup of mint, chopped
- juice of 1/2 lemon (optional)
- half a cup of coriander leaves, chopped
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- a pinch of cinnamon (optional)
- a teaspoon of paprika (optional)
- Vegetables: whole large, peeled onions AND/OR small aubergines AND/OR cabbage AND/OR vine leaves (fresh or preserved).
- two tablespoons of butter
How Did I Do It?
Make the stuffing:
- Fry the meat and chopped onion in two tablespoons of hot olive oil, until lightly browned.
- Stir in the uncooked rice until coated and translucent, about one minute. Add the lamb stock (or, if not using, 2 cups of hot water). Leave to simmer until rice is cooked and dry.
- Stir herbs, spices and lemon juice (if using) into mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste (be careful not to add too much salt if already using salted vine leaves).
- Let sit until cool enough to handle.
To prepare the aubergine: Top and tail the aubergine. Cut a deep slit in the top, making sure not to cut through the bottom or sides of the vegetable. Saute the entire vegetable on all sides in hot oil for a few minutes until softened.
To prepare the onion: Submerge the large onions in hot water, and boil for 10 minutes. Remove and leave until cool enough to handle. Cut two small slits into the bottom of each onion, and carefully press the centre of the onion out, leaving one or two outer layers as intact as possible.
To prepare the cabbage: Halve and core a cabbage. Boil in water for 5 minutes. Remove and leave until cool enough to handle. Carefully peel leaves from the cabbage and remove the thick white stem from each.
To prepare the vine leaves: If using fresh, blanch in hot water for a few minutes to soften. If using preserved, rinse each leaf under cold water. Cut off stems.
Finish the dish:
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees celsius (390 degrees fahrenheit).
- Stuff the filling into the aubergines and/or onion layers, or use the cabbage leaves or vine leaves to wrap the filling. Experiment with the best way to wrap the vine leaves – it’s easier to do than to explain!
- Place the veggies in a large and fairly deep oven dish or pan. The cabbage and vine leaves can be layered. Carefully pour enough water into the bottom of the pan to cover it with around 2 cm of water. Cover the dish and cook for half an hour.
- Uncover the dish and dot the vegetables with butter. Cook for another half hour, or until the
Serve with yoghurt to which a few cloves of crushed garlic have been added. Garnish with herbs or a pinch of cinnamon/paprika.
So How Did It Taste?
Phew – after my afternoon in the kitchen, we were happy to sit down and dig into our steaming stuffed vegetables. It was very good, although the taste was not as exotic or surprising as some of the more out-there dishes I’ve made over the last few months. We both agreed that the aubergine was our favourite – I’d never cooked it like this before, so I think stuffed aubergines will be a go-to weekday supper for us from now on. Joe also loved the cabbage dolma, and I was partial to the vine leaves. I’d only ever had the latter in restaurants or from a can before, and it felt great to know I could finally make it myself now. The onions were cute – who would have thought they’d make such handy little carrying cases for rice and meat?) but I think other veggies are a more flavourful option.
As far as meat was concerned, I used lamb (I finally resorted to putting lamb steaks through a food processor!). I do think the result was vastly superior to beef, which Azerbaijanis (righfully, IMO) decry as rather tasteless when used in dolmasi. Joe’s quote for the week makes it clear I’ve once-and-for-all converted this former vegetarian:
It was lamb-y. I liked the little lamb bits. They were tasty.
He also wanted to know:
Should I eat them in order, according to the season?
Nope, he could eat them in any order he liked, I assured him – and you can cook as many of them (or as few) as you feel like! Do let me know if you venture down the delicious path of fresh Azerbaijani dolmasi, whatever the season!