Recipe - Dolmades (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

[I originally posted this recipe in December 2010 - this is the updated version] My first exposure to dolmades was back in freshman year of college; there was a Whole Foods across the street from campus and a curiosity for foods from other cultures led me to purchase a container of stuffed grape leaves (I wouldn't learn the term "dolmades" for several years after that). I loved the tanginess of the leaves and the savoriness of the filling. My first ones were cold but afterward, I discovered that they could be had hot or cold depending on what was inside.

The name 'dolmades' is the plural form of 'dolma' in Greek but in general, the whole line of 'dolma' refers to stuffed vegetable dishes from the Middle East. There are several variations of this tasty snack ranging from Armenian to Greek to Israeli to Egyptian and so forth. The translation just means 'stuffed thing.' So what would you call my version? I don't know which nation it would belong to other than the land of delicious. Enjoy the recipe below and remember to account for the time you'll spend wrapping each leaf!

Step 1: Ingredients (yields 60-70 grape leaves)
  • 1 jar (16 oz) grape leaves, blanched
  • 1 cup uncooked white rice
  • 1 white onion, diced (about 2 cups)
  • 3 cups of water, divided
  • 1 Tbsp chicken bouillon
  • 2 tsps garlic salt
  • 2 tsps black pepper
  • 1/4 bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped (about 2 Tbsps)
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 2 celery stalks, finely diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 lemon, juice only
  • olive oil
Step 2: Blanching the leaves
Carefully remove the grape leaves from their jar, making sure not to rip them. If you want to reduce the sourness of the leaves, you may rinse them first. Boil a large pot of water and fill another large pot/bowl with ice cold water. Once the water boils, cook leaves for ~3 minutes before moving immediately to ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain and separate leaves. Set aside all leaves that have holes in them or will not be usable in wrapping.

Step 3: Preparing the stuffing
Heat a skillet on medium high with enough oil to barely coat the bottom. Chop onions and add. Once onions just start to turn translucent, add rice. Stir ~2 minutes before adding one cup of water and chicken bouillon. Cook until rice is half done and most of the water has evaporated (about 7-10 minutes); turn off heat. In a separate mixing bowl, mix together celery, parsley, ground beef, salt, and pepper. Mix in onion and rice. In a large pot, line the bottom with the damaged leaves set aside earlier. These will prevent the dolmades from burning.

Step 4: Rolling the leaves
Time to roll the grape leaves. Remove stems from leaves by pinching them off. Put a small amount of the mixture at the base and fold the bottom edges up. Then fold over the sides. Lastly, roll it away from you but not too tightly. Remember that the rice is not fully cooked yet and will expand when you DO cook the leaves. You don’t want them to burst while cooking.

Step 5: Cooking the leaves
Place finished rolls in the leaf-lined pot. Squeeze lemon over all rolls and drizzle on olive oil before adding remaining 2 cups of water. This water mix can be used to periodically keep leaves from drying out by pouring over during intervals; you can also cover everything with more damaged leaves to keep moisture in.

Step 6: Finishing
Cover the pan with a lid and let steam for 30-40 minutes. To check doneness, split one in half and check if rice is fully cooked. Enjoy your stuffed grape leaves hot or cold!

Photography by Duc Duong.