Saturday, April 16, 2011

Spice Rack Challenge April: Dill

Lettuce Wraps Dolma-Style

Dill?  Really?  In April when it's barely time to sow the seeds?  Why not in July when this tender green herb is at it's fresh, flavorful, fragrant best?  Dried dill is just a ghost of it's summer glory and fresh supermarket dill is expensive, pale, and wimpy.  But I don't call the tune, I just dance to it.
Dolmas, also known as stuffed grape leaves, are a classic Mediterranean food traditionally filled with a lemony herb-infused rice and pine nut mix, sometimes including a little meat and sometimes not, gently simmered in olive oil, lemon juice, and water and served warm or cold.  When I was doing the festival circuit a container full of dolmas, a mini loaf of good bread, a chunk of cheese, and whatever fruit was in season was my favorite pack-along lunch.
Here in Floyd, unless you brine your own grape leaves, you can't find packaged leaves to make your own dolmas.  I've discovered that greens like collards, romaine lettuce, and kohlrabi leaves make fine substitutes.  I used romaine for this recipe.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  While that's heating, separate the romaine into individual leaves and rinse them.  Fill a large bowl or the sink with ice water and have a colander handy.  When the water comes to a boil, place the leaves in it, a few at a time for 30 seconds, remove, and immediately place them in ice water to stop the cooking.  This quick blanch will make the leaves more pliable for rolling.  Drain the leaves thoroughly in the colander.
Dump the water out of the pot and return it to the stove.  Assemble the rest of your ingredients.  You'll need:
1/2 of a large onion, minced
1 cup of instant rice, white or brown
6 green onions, including the tender green stalks, thinly sliced
1/3 cup pine nuts or chopped walnuts (Have you seen the current price of pine nuts?  $37/lb here! Ouch!)
1/3 cup dried currants (or you can substitute raisins or chopped dried apricots or other dried fruit)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2-3 lemons
olive oil
In your big pot that's back on the stove, warm 1/4 cup of olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onion and cook a few minutes until soft.  Add the rice, green onions and nuts and stir until the green onions soften.
Add the dried fruit, chopped herbs, salt and pepper, the juice of 1 lemon, and 1 cup of water, stir and cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until all the water is absorbed and the rice is tender.  About 10-15 minutes.

Remove the rice from the heat and allow to cool enough to handle it.  Next you're going to roll the rice in the lettuce leaves.
Take one of the leaves and lay it on the work surface with the bottom of the leaf laying away from you.
Trim off the thickest rib portion at the bottom of the leaf and slit the rib down the center but not all the way through so the leaf lies flattish.  Place a generous tablespoon of the rice in the "cup" at the top of the leaf.
Next, roll the leaf over and sort of tuck it under the rice to start the roll.
Fold the sides inward to hold the filling in place.
Continue to roll the leaf to the end, then place it seam side down and set aside.
Repeat until you run out of leaves or rice.  Sometimes you'll have a good leaf for rolling but it has a tear or a hole in it.  After you lay that leaf flat, before stuffing it, tear a repair piece from a reject leaf, lay it over the hole or tear on the inside of the leaf you're rolling, and proceed from there.  Rolling pretty little packages takes some practice and not every one will be perfect.  Don't worry about it.  They'll still taste good!  Sometimes I've had some blow out in the pot while simmering.  Those are cook's bonus!

When you're done rolling the dolmas, you can clean out the rice pot and reuse that or, if you have a smaller amount of dolmas than will fill the pot halfway, use a smaller one.  Line the bottom of the pot with some of your reject leaves (there are always reject leaves) and sprinkle with a pinch of salt.  These leaves create a barrier between the dolmas and the bottom of the pot and prevent possible scorching.
Carefully pick up your dolmas and place them seam-side down on the lettuce leaves in the pot.  When you have a complete layer, drizzle with olive oil and a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice.  Repeat with the remaining dolmas.
After you have all the dolmas in the pot, cover with the rest of your reject leaves, sprinkle with a little more salt, and lay an inverted heat proof plate on top.
Carefully pour in 1 cup of water and place the lid on top of the pot.
Bring the pot to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half.  Check the water level from time to time so the pan doesn't dry out but this shouldn't be a problem.  Remove the pan from the heat and allow the dolmas to cool in the pan for about 2 hours.

Transfer the dolmas to a platter and garnish with lemon wedges.  They can be served warm or at room temperature, or store chilled for later.
I prefer to eat my dolmas after they've chilled overnight and the flavors have melded.  While I had the leftover stuffing with my dinner and the cut dolma in the picture above, I'll never actually know for myself how good this batch was.  Michael came home at 10:30 pm, ravished after his master gardener class and demolished the platter, saving a half dozen for his lunch the next day!  I guess that's as good a testimonial as any!


  1. I have to agree with you. I was hoping for dill in August. I couldn't even find fresh dill. I have to admit I am not a huge fan of grape leaves, but these look really good. Might just change my mind.

  2. Thanks for the tip, it would have never occurred to me to use other leaves!

  3. OK I'm coming over!

    I'm Sue in MtP from Chowhound. Let me know if you come to Charleston.