I’m sharing my version of my family’s Meat Dolma recipe, not only so you guys can make it, but so I can document it. I’m calling this “my version” because my mother’s is slightly different than my grandmother’s, and so on. I also use cooked rice, which makes things a helluva lot easier. Don’t tell my grandma.
Dolma vs. Sarma vs. Meat Dolma vs. Yalanchi: or how to order at the Armenian Deli
OK, here’s how it works. “Dolma” means stuffed, and “Sarma” means wrapped. So, meat dolma in grape leaves are technically also sarma, because they are wrapped in leaves. A cabbage roll would work the same way.
These are called meat dolma for a few reasons. 1) My grandmother says so. 2) We usually add some stuffed vegetables to the mix: small sweet peppers are my favorite. You can stuff onions, zucchini, thick-walled tomatoes, or small eggplant with this meat mixture too. So they aren’t exclusively wrapped, making them “dolma” but not always “sarma.” 3) That’s what you’d ask for if you want a similar dish at an Armenian or Mediterranean restaurant. If you’re at a Greek establishment, ask for meat dolmades.
Meat Dolma vs. Yalanchi Sarma: these two are cousins from the grapevine. Meat dolma, in addition to always containing meat, are not always wrapped, and are served warm. Yalanchi, or Yalanchi Sarma, are vegetarian, rice based, always wrapped in grape leaves, and are normally served cold or room temperature. Yalanchi are also served as an appetizer or side dish, meat dolma is usually the start of the show. If you’d like to order some, it’s pronounced pretty close to Y’ALL-AN-CHEE.
Lulu Kebab: the best thing your meat counter is missing
Lulu Kebab (or Lula Kabob, or Lule or Lyulya) is a key ingredient of proper meat dolma. Sadly, if you don’t have a Hye Deli (Hye means Armenian) or Mediterranean meat counter near you, you probably can’t find it. And that’s OK, because you can make it pretty easily. Lulu Kebab is a blend of ground beef and lamb (or all lamb in some cases), onion, seasonings and fresh herbs. I’ll add my recipe here, but if you know where to get it you can just pick it up and get started.
Yes, you can use just beef. But I don’t think you should. Once you find out how delicious the beef + lamb mixture is, you can make this Shepard’s Pie too.
In addition to the Lulu Kebab, you’re gonna need some grape leaves. These are easier to find. Look at specialty markets, in the “ethnic” section at premium grocery stores, or online. You want at least one large jar or two smaller (10 oz or so) jars. The brine should look greenish but clear, and you shouldn’t see any dark brown or tears in the leaves through the side of the jar. Apparently my grandma used to run a crew (of my mother and aunts) to jar leaves every spring, so they had tender leaves that had been brined plenty long by the holidays. I’m happy to report that this tradition had been abandoned by the time I was old enough to get recruited. Since we live near Fresno, an Armenian hub, there are lots of places to get “the good leaves.”
OK, I think you’re ready. Let’s make some dolma! Maybe pour yourself a single-serve sangria. This is gonna take a minute, but it’s SO worth it.
Meat Dolma: Armenian Stuffed Grape Leaves
- stock pot with lid
- oven-safe plate that fits inside the stock pot
- 2.5 lbs Lulu Kebab (see recipe below)
- 2 TBSP olive oil
- 1 large onion diced
- 1 shallot diced
- 3 cups cooked rice
- 1 tsp. ground allspice
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley chopped
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 5-7 hollowed out small vegetables such as sweet peppers, squash, eggplant
- 1 16 oz. jar grape leaves
- 1 24 oz. can tomato sauce
- 1 lemon
to make Lulu Kebab:
- 1.5 lbs 80/20 ground beef
- 1 lb ground lamb
- 1 large yellow onion diced
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley chopped
- 2 TBSP tomato paste
- 1 TBSP paprika smoked is best
- 1 tsp. cumin
- 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
if you're making your own Lulu Kebab:
- Add the ground beef and lamb to a large mixing bowl. (Make sure the bowl is large enough to mix the meat plus all the filling ingredients too.) Add all the Lulu Kebab ingredients and mix to combine.
to make the Dolma:
- Warm the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat, and saute the onion and shallot until translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Set aside.
- Place the Lulu Kebab in large mixing bowl, or pull it over if you made your own. Add the rice, allspice, parsley, salt and pepper to the meat. Add the sauteed onion and shallot, and mix to combine.
- Prepare a stockpot or large Dutch oven with non-stick spray or olive oil. Place a large cutting board in front of you or clear a work surface, You’ll want access to the grape leaves, veggies, stockpot, and possibly a small spoon (I use my fingers.) I usually have a couple of paper towels and a garbage bowl handy too. Plus a glass of wine.
- First, hollow out the small veggies. You can finely chop any good bit from the centers and add them to the stuffing mix or save them for soup later. Carefully fill the veggies with the meat filling, packing them tightly but not cracking them open. Set the filled vegetables on the side of your workspace.
- Pull the grape leaves from the jar, allowing the brine to drain off. They are often bundled with string or rolled in bunches, so remove the string if needed and unroll the leaves so the lay flat. Pinch the stems off each leaf, looking to see if any have rips or tears, or any seem tougher than the others. Use these flawed leaves to make a layer along the bottom of your pot. The layer should cover the entire bottom and be two leaves deep. If you don’t have enough poor leaves for the bottom layer, add a couple of good ones.
- Now, begin filling the leaves. Work one leaf at at time (or the ones underneath will tear). Place about 1 TBSP of filling in the widest part of the leaf. Fold the sides in, and then roll the leaf up from the base (where the stem was) to the tip. It should look like a small spring roll or cigar. Lay the filled dolma in the bottom of the pan. Repeat this process, adding each dolma right next to the last. (You want them next together, but not packed tight.) Once you have a full layer of wrapped grape leaves, add the filled vegetables to the second layer, then pack filled grapes leaves around them to form another layer. Depending on the size of your pot, you may or may not have a third layer. If you do, add the dolma in the center first and work outward. You should have some grape leaves remaining – don’t throw any away that tear!
- Once the filling has all been used, squeeze the juice of the lemon over the dolma. Then pour in the tomato sauce. Cover with a layer of remaining grape leaves, then put the plate face down over the leaves. (You can refrigerate at this step and cook tomorrow.) Cover with a lid.
- To cook, start the pot at medium heat, and tip the lid to release a small amount of steam. Once the liquid begins to bubble around the edge of the plate, reduce to low and cover fully, and cook for 1.5 hours. Check the pot occasionally to make certain it's still slightly simmering and not burning, and that there is still a bit of liquid bubbling around the plate. You can add a 1/4 cup water if needed (usually not) or adjust heat.
- Once the dolma have cooked, remove from heat and remove the pot lid. Carefully remove the plate with tongs. Let them cool a bit a enjoy!
Photos by James Collier