Although there are other culinary uses for the vineleaf, the dolma is its real claim to fame.Legend has it that Noah was the inventor of stuffed vineleaves. This story probaby derives from the fact that the vine is such a sturdy plant that it recovers rapidly from drought, floods and other natural disasters.
Dolma, a term based on the Turkish verb dolmak, to fill, refers to all kinds of stuffed vegetables, meats and fish. These play a special role an the Turkish cuisine, but in pride of place is the vineleaf dolma. Stuffed with a filling of rice, herbs , and onions and cooked with olive oil, this dish is known as "Zeytinyagli Yaprak Dolmasi" or "Yalanci Dolma" and is served cold. When cooked with a stuffing containing meat the dolma are known as "Etli dolma" and served hot. Onions a nd rice are essential ingredients of any stuffed dish.
Whether fresh or preserved in brine, the vineleaves for dolma must have been picked early on in the season, preferably in May or June, before the leaves become coa rse and the veins stringy.
Although vineleaves preserved in brine are available commercially, it is not difficult to prepare your own. For those with their own vines to hand, select young branches of well shaped and tender leaves, pull them down and pick the third leaves from the t ips. Continue until you have picked sufficient number of leaves, wash them well in cold water and remove the stalks. Bring two litres of water and half a cup of salt to the boil, remove the pan from the heat and add the vineleaves. Press them down with a wooden spoon occasionally to keep them submerged until they have softened and turned a yellowish green colour. Remove them from the water with a strainer spoon, and arrange them in piles of 10-15 leaves each. Roll up each pile from the stalk end and pack them into a clean glass jar. Pour the brine over them when cool and close tightly. Now your vineleaves are ready to use throughout the winter months.
To prepare the preserved leaves remove them carefully from the jar to avoid tearing, rinse them in cold water and soak them For 10 minutes in hot water. Then rinse them again in cold water and leave them to drain on a kitchen towel. If you are using fresh leaves boil them for a few minutes, rinse and drain. Save torn leaves to line the base of the saucepan.
When wrapping the leaves around thefilling make sure that the smooth side is on the outside of the dolma. Place a spoonful of the stuffing close to the bottom of the leaf and wrap the sides inwards over it. Now roll the leaf up. Smaller leaves are to be preferred for dolma with a meat stuffing, but if all your leaves are large, then you can divide them in two or even three.
Arrange the dolma carefully in a saucepan without packing them too tightly. Line the base of the saucepan with leaves, and lay more leaves between each layer of dolmas. Sprinkle one or two spoonfuls of lemon juice over the variety stuffed with meat if mad e with fresh leaves.
A wide diversity of aromatic herbs and spices are added to dolma stuffings. When preparing a meat stuffing, these may include coriander, mint, sweet basil, and sweet marjoram, parsley, dill and tarragon. In dolma cooked with olive oil, parsley, mint, d ill, thyme and fennel are the most commonly used. There is no harm in experimenting with new flavours when making stuffed vine leaves. For example , a few sprigs of sage laid in the bottom of the saucepan or rose or lemon geranium leaves laid over the top create unusual variations of flavour on the time tested theme.
Black pepper is an indispensible spice for dolma, although tumeric and saffron may sometimes be used in meat fillings, and allspice and cinnamon in meatless fillings. Sour pomegranate or plum juice are popular additions to "Zeytinyagli yaprak dolmasi" in some regions.
Of course, like all Middle East cuisines, meat in Turkey tradtionally means lamb or mutton. However modern dietary patterns are moving away from this h igh fat meat flavour of beef, and either may be used for dolma fillings. If using ground beef place mutt on bones in the bottom of the pan if possible to retain some of the traditional flavour in your meat dolma.
To prevent the dolma floating to the surface of the water while cooking and unwrapping, place a heat resistant china plate over them.
Having reviewed the general principles for preparation of these dishes, it is time to give some recipes. Good appetite... "Afiyet olsun"
Turkish Airlines Skylife May 1994 pp.50-54