Where do I start with dolma... It's quite possibly the dish I miss most from my grandmother (besides her fried fish). I'm not sure whether there is valididty behind this observation, but I feel as though dolma is more of a summer dish. Every summer, we spent so much time gathering grape leaves from my grandparent's backyard. We had specific instructions: no holes and only pick the big leaves. We always ended up with stomach aches from all the sour vines we would pick off and eat. After filling up our bags, we would proudly march into her kitchen and show her our days (minutes) worth of pickings. She would then wash them and remove the stems. My aunts and cousins would then gather and on the floor and everyone would help filling the leaves with a zesty mixture of rice, herbs, vegetables and a plethora of lemon. Of course, when all was said and done you could always tell which ones my grandmother rolled because they were so perfectly wrapped into a finger like shape. You might be confused as to why I am rolling cabbage instead of grape leaves at this point. The reason is simple; I don't have access to fresh grape leaves since I moved and the jarred leaves just don't do it for me.
My mother is from the western banks of Baghdad, where dolma is something to be prideful about. My father is from a different city three hours south of Baghdad, there they seem to view dolma as more of a side dish. In June of 2010, my parents decided to take us on a trip to Iraq to visit family we have never before met and to get a sense of what their world was like. To spare you the heartache, I won't describe the utter poverty and destruction of a once flourishing and bountiful country, but I will tell you of its beautiful and rich culture that has survived through all the hardships.
One of my fondest memories of that trip naturally revolved around dolma. It was a very very (VERY) hot June day and my mother's aunt called early morning to let us know that she would be visiting and bringing lunch with her. The entire family gathered at my great grandmother's house (as we normally did), there was a lot of UNO playing a Turkish coffee going around. Little did I know, my great aunt had brought three pots full of dolma (oh how I wish I would've taken a picture)... Since the dining table was far too small for everyone to fit, we laid out a rug on the floor and served everything there. Once all the pots of dolma were flipped to reveal the perfectly crispy and caramelized bottom, there was no stopping anyone. It was time to eat.
I always get the question as to why I enjoy food and cooking so much (I nearly spend 2/3 of my free time in the kitchen). My answer is simple, it brings people together and cooking for someone else to enjoy is a form of love. I truly believe that anything made with love makes all the difference. I remember sitting back for a moment watching everyone eat the dolma she had just made and I thought to myself, these people have nothing... their lives were torn apart by endless wars and yet they're the happiest people I know. Even if they have nothing to their names, they will give you the clothes off of their backs. If you ask me how the people of Iraq are I will tell you just this; they are selfless, unapologetically giving, epitome of joy in the mist of all hardship and they make damn good food.
My love for food has opened me up to an entirely new community and food culture, and along the way I have come across some of the most wonderful people. Of the many people, Sara Ahmad (creator of Add A Little Lemon blog), stood out to me. She was oddly similar to myself, first generation Iraqi born in the America but still connected to our deep Arab roots. She was among the first Iraqi food bloggers that I had come across, and it made me pause... why weren't there more?? Her blog emulates the strong-willed and emotional connection our culture holds to food and not to mention the impact it has on the political climate (yes, food and politics), and most importantly the marriage between Iraqi and American culture. We decided to collaborate by making our own versions of dolma and carrying you through our family's connection to it along the way. Click HERE to read about Sara's take on dolma!
Boiling cabbage is a tad bit tedious but I have some helpful tips I learned from my husband's grandmother: boil the entire thing. I used to take so much time removing each leaf piece by piece and then boiling them. Not only is it painfully tedious but raw cabbage is insanely difficult to pull apart! All you need is a large pot of boiling water and to remove the core of the cabbage. Slowly the leaves will start to wilt and come apart. You don't want to over-cook the cabbage as they will be cooked once more later on. Lastly, remove each stem up to the rib of the cabbage, splitting the leaf in two if it's a large piece.
Same concept of the cabbage, applies to the red onions. Remove the core, cut down the side and boil whole until the layers loosen up.
If you were to take away one thing from this, know that the bottom of the pot is the most important part. It's edible gold in my opinion. All the lemon, olive oil and spices dancing around and leaving the potatoes, dolma and lamb chops perfectly tender but crispy. That my dear reader is the entire point of this recipe, burnt is the new black (literally).
Dolma: Iraqi Stuffed Cabbage and Red Onions with Crispy Potatoes and Lamb Chops
4 bunches of parsley (can substitute half for cilantro)
7 large ripe tomatoes
1 large onion
2 bunches green onions
1 cup (or so depending of preference) of rice or burghul (cracked wheat)
10-20 lemons juiced (based on preference, I say the more the better!)
2 cups of olive oil
1/4 cup pomegranate condensed syrup
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp curry
3 tbsp tomato paste
2-3 large red onions, cored and boiled whole
2-3 heads white/green cabbage, cored and boiled whole
1 large russet potato
1 rack of lamb, cut into individual pieces and browned ( can omit or substitute for beef ribs)
Stuffing (can be made a day before and left in the fridge):
1. After washing all of your ingredients, place one by one (parsley, tomatoes, onion and green onion) in the food processor until fine. Transfer to a large bowl and add rice.
2. In a separate bowl, mix lemon juice, olive oil, pomegranate syrup, salt, pepper, curry and tomato paste. Whisk until uniform and pour into bowl of herbs an vegetables. Taste at this point to see if it needs more of anything.
3. When ready to use, use a large strainer to strain the liquid from the mixture... SAVE THE LIQUID!
Cabbage & Red Onion:
1. Remove the core of both cabbage and red onion by using a sharp knife to cut a cone-like wedge from the core. Only cut one side of the red onion (like shown above).
2. Placing in separate pots (one large for cabbage and a small/medium pot for red onion), boil until larger loosen up.
3. Cut the larger cabbage leaves in the middle by removing the stem/rib.
Preparing the Dolma:
1. Using one large pot or two medium pots, prepare by placing sliced potatoes and brown lamb chops on the bottom of the pot(s).
2. Use about heaping tbsp of the mixture (based on the size of leaf or onion) and place in the middle. Rolling dolma is the same concept as rolling egg rolls; fold over the edges first and then tightly roll from top to bottom. Stuffing red onions only requires you to tightly roll in into itself. Place the dolma in a circular pattern, start from the outer edges of the pot and going in. When that layer is full repeat the process. You can fit in the red onions wherever you can. You can also add some at the bottom of the pot to get crispy.
3. After you've finished rolling and placing the dolma, pour over the liquid that you saved from earlier steps. Do not pour all of it as it will overflow while cooking. Fill up just to the level of the dolma. Using a small plate, place in the center of the dolma and push down until the liquid is forced up. Pressure is your greatest asset at this point because it will prevent the individual dolma from coming apart in the cooking process. Periodically push down the plate while it is cooking to keep the pressure. If there seems to be too much liquid, spoon out the excess.
4. Cook on medium/high for 10 minutes and then reduce to medium/low and simmer for 1-1.5 hours. There shouldn't be an excessive amount of liquid at this point. Let it sit momentarily and then flip onto a large (very large) serving plate.
- You can make this recipe vegan/vegetarian by omitting the lamb chops entirely.
- You can substitute lamb with beef ribs if preferred.
- ou can substitute rice with burghul/cracked wheat.
- You can use grape leaves instead of cabbage. Grape leaves can be found jarred and ready to use, I recommend rinsing with water if using the jarred leaves.