dolmas done right

I first tasted stuffed grape leaves, or dolmas, in Greece. I was 19 and still naive in the cuisines of the near East. They were delicately Mediterranean, bursting with new combinations of taste and texture.

My friend and I were sharing a small, white stuccoed room on the island of Naxos, overlooking the Aegean Sea. We had met an Australian, Grace, who introduced us to the cigar-shaped delicacies packed in olive oil. To this day I still adore two of her recommendations: dolmas and halwa, a sweet spun from sesame seeds.

Greek dolmas

In those lazy days we lived on dolmas and baklava. These days all I can find are the canned ones, packed in too much oil, unless I want to pay a dollar apiece just up the street. With the way the weather has turned, that seems like a steep price to pay to have a Greek snack at hand. If you love the nutty, lemony squish of a chilled dolma on a dog-day afternoon, a dolma’s all that will do you, trust me.

And then—thank Zeus!—along came a new friend, Susan, who passed on her expertise to me. Though I observed more than I participated, I learned that making them yourself cuts the oil and the need to fly back to Naxos. I also found out that dolma is from the Turkish word for “stuffed thing.” (Turns out I have more in common with this finger food than I thought.)

Greek Dolmas

Greek dolmas stuffed grape leaves

Grape leaves are available in any well-stocked international grocery store. I used a California-Style brand called Castella, an arbitrary choice really. These snacks are an easy substitute for the chopping, precision rolling, and meticulous fish-handling required for sushi. They are cool and light, the perfect compliment to a serene back porch gathering around a pitcher of sangria.

Easy to make and easy to eat, these dolmas are so good you might just want to break a plate or two. Just make sure they’re your own, not someone else’s Royal Daulton.

Greek dolmas stuffed grape leaves

How to roll dolmas

Dolmas (Greek Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Ingredients

40-45 grape leaves, in brine (available at Middle Eastern or specialty grocery stores)
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3-4 cups white onion, finely chopped
zest of one lemon
3 Tbsp fresh chopped mint (approximately)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1 cup uncooked white rice (not brown, it’s not starchy enough and won’t hold together in the rolls)
1/2 cup boiling water
3 Tbsp currants or finely chopped apricots (approximately)
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
juice of one lemon

Filling:

  1. Drain the grape leaves and place them in a large bowl. Pour just enough boiling water over the leaves and to cover them, and let them soak for about 10 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Remove stems just where they hit the leaf.
  2. Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a medium skillet. Add the onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the lemon zest, mint, all of the spices, and salt to taste. Add the uncooked rice and stir until it is well coated in oil. Add the boiling water and stir for another minute. Add the currants and pine nuts and stir to combine. Remove from heat.

To make the rolls:

  1. Lay one grape leaf vein side up and stem towards you. Put about 2 teaspoons of the filling on the lower section of the leaf. Roll the stem end over the filling, and then fold each side in. Gently but firmly, continue to roll the leaf up to the tip until you have a nice neat roll. (You want it tight enough to hold, but not so tight that the leaf will rip. Remember: the rice will expand inside.) Repeat with all 40-45 grape leaves, or until filling is used up.
  2. Arrange the rolls in a single layer in the bottom of a large skillet. (If your skillet is too small to fit them all, separate the layers with a layer of grape leaves.) Drizzle with lemon juice and a few tablespoons of olive oil and add boiling water to cover. Cover the leaves with a heat-proof plate or lid that will sit flat against the top of the rolls. Simmer (bubbling just slightly) for 45 minutes to an hour. Fish the rolls out of the water and transfer to a serving platter.
  3. Serve at room temperature with tzatzkiki (plain yogurt mixed with garlic and cucumber)
  4. The rolls will keep well in the fridge for about 4 days.

8 thoughts on “dolmas done right

  1. July 10, 2008 at 10:17 am

    My Dad grows grapes, and my Mom always used grape leaves when making dill pickles. After each jar was filled, a grape leave would be folded and placed on top. Not sure where this practice came from exactly, it was just something I accepted as normal.

    I’ve had dolmas – they are tasty!

  2. Katherine in Wales
    July 13, 2008 at 8:47 am

    Stuffed grape leaves are a traditional food in Iran as well. Although they are done a bit differently to the greek style, using herbs and ground lamb along with rice for the filling. It might sound strange compared to these sweet style ones, but it is really good. My Iranian relatives are always very disappointed with Greek-style dolma because of the lack of meat in them, but I like both styles. If you’re interested I’ll ask my gran for a traditional Iranian recipe for them. Hers were always delicious.

  3. September 7, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    Hi, I would like to use my fresh grape leaves for dolmas. Do I have to process the leaves first in any way. thank you.

  4. Paul
    September 9, 2008 at 9:40 am

    Jennifer, the fresh grape leaves made excellent dolmas. I used those of ‘Catawba’ since they looked the nicest at this time of year out of all the different ones I grow. Thanks, Paul.

  5. September 29, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    I always eat my dolma with just pinenuts, onion, mint and lemon in the rice. These sweet ones sound interesting.

    Katherine, if you’re still open to distributing your gran’s recipe, I’d love to sign up for it. A friend of mine from Iran wants to know how to make them with the meat, but his mother won’t show him. Thank you in advance!! I’m at bahpeanut at gmail dot com

  6. shannon
    July 27, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    I am just about to head off to the kitchen to make this recipe…..thanks for sharing!!! I will let you know how they turned out!!!

  7. July 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    I love these dolma. They were a great hit at a Pot Luck.

  8. June 26, 2013 at 6:46 am

    Lovely! This is quite similar to the recipe I use, in Turkey. Did you know that there are two completely different types of dolma? The other one has ground beef and is served warm, with a cool topping of yogurt. (I think this is similar to the Persian recipe a commentator left.) Some people use ‘sarma’ (“rolled thing”) to refer to one type rather than the other, but it’s not consistent across the country which refers to which. Also, the hot ones are short and stubby and the cool ones (like your recipe above) are preferably thinner and longer.
    When using fresh leaves (for either recipe) we simply boil the leaves first for a little while.