Has anyone ever asked you "what is your favorite food?" It's a difficult question- there are sooooooo many amazing foods out there. And how can you empirically determine a favorite when figuratively (and literally) comparing apples to oranges (and dinner to dessert; meats to vegetables; American cuisine to international foods).

Normally I'm horrible at making decisions (I spend an average of 20 minutes picking out a b-day card...) but there is one thing I have decided upon: my favorite food.

Most people probably haven't heard of it before because my favorite food is dolma. But not just ANY dolma. There are tons of versions of dolma, both international and within the Assyrian community. My favorite is the dolma made using grape leaves and copious amounts of tamarind and tomato sauce. My aunt Nahreen makes a ridiculously amazing dolma, and I'm still learning how to master it using her recipe.

I'm getting there, slowly but surely. The flavor of my dolma is pretty damn close to hers, but I have yet to figure out exactly how to get the dolma to not turn into a giant pile of mush. Her dolma is more "wet" compared to other people's, which makes it prone to falling apart. (But also what makes it so much more amazing.) I also don't have access to fresh grape leaves, which I think would also help with the integrity of the dolma. :(

But whatever, when it comes to dolma I'm not looking to create a 5 star meal. I'm looking to recreate the flavors that remind me why it is my favorite food. So if it falls apart 50% of the time I make it, so be it. I'd still eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

For anyone who may be daunted by making dolma at home, it's not a difficult thing to make. But be warned: for the amount of dolma this recipe makes it will take a while (cleaning/chopping all those veggies takes forever). This isn't a family sized recipe, its a party sized one. But I like making the full sized recipe to both share it with friends and freeze some for later.

Ready for the photo post??? (Recipe will be below)

Look at my delicious bounty! This dolma is seriously full of greens, more so than rice actually. Everything shown here is part of the dolma filling, except the grape leaves and yellow zucchini (those I use to stuff with rice.) I use extra stuffers (other than grape leaves) because the amount of filling this recipe gives is a bit too much for 1 jar of grape leaves.

I like to prep the floor too. Chopped parsely and dill gets EVERYWHERE during the process...

For the next million hours chop away. Everything needs to be very very teeny. Check out how small the dice on these tomatoes is.

You'll need a GIANT bowl if you're using this recipe. Still in the midst of chopping at this point.

OK, while chopping you may want to get your tamarind ready. (Having an assistant during this step is nice too...) You need to basically turn the tamarind block into paste. It takes some hot water, muscle and patience.

Just add some boiling water to the tamarind and start breaking it apart.

Keep adding water (a bit at a time) until its a soft paste-like consistency. I know what it looks like, but trust me, its delicious!

Now use a fine-strainer to separate all the seeds/membrane from the tamarind.

You want this tart and pulpy goodness. (My mouth is seriously watering right now. I love tamarind!)

OK, once you're all done with the chopping you can add the rice, tomato sauce/paste, spices and half the tamarind. My giant pyrex is seriously overflowing with deliciousness.

But don't worry, the moisture from the sauces will cause the whole thing to condense a bit. At this point I taste it to see if it needs more heat. If so, add more hot peppers or some cayenne.

Extreme closeup. As you can see there actually isn't a lot of rice in this dolma. You could add more, but this is the way I like it.

Now its time to roll it up. Just like a burrito.

In addition to grape leaves you can use anything really to roll/stuff the dolma. Commonly used things are swiss chard, zucchini, tomatoes and onion peels. The grape leaves are my personal favorite- I feel the flavor from the leaves is what makes dolma dolma.

Rolled and stuffed and ready to go.

Now just place them in your pot. I like to use my dutch oven, but even that is too small for all my dolma. So you'll likely have to split it if using the full recipe.

(Note: the grape leaves on the bottom have a tendency to burn a bit so placing the leftover parsley stems or celery stalks is often used to "lift" the dolma and prevent burning.)

Use a plate to weigh down the dolma then add the sauce mixture + water, just enough to barely cover. I may have a bit too much liquid here, not sure. Like I said, I'm still learning this myself!

After its all cooked.

My dolma mush

I know it doesn't look too appealing. Next time I make dolma that doesn't completely fall apart I'll have to post some pictures. A few reasons I think my dolma turned to mush: (1) The temperature was a bit too hot, which burned the celery stalks I used to protect the dolma to a crisp. (2) I may have added a bit too much liquid to the dolma. (3) I didn't roll the dolma tight enough. But like I said, it was amazingly delicious so other than wasting 40+ minutes rolling all the dolma I really could care less!

I don't have a picture, but I like to eat my dolma with a healthy side of yogurt (tart middle-eastern kind). Something about the tomato and yogurt combo blows my taste buds away.

So there you have it, Jackie's version of Nahreen's dolma- her most favorite food ever.

And if you wanna see the pros in action, here are some pics I took of the last dolma making session in Chicago at my aunt's house.

Chopping, chopping, chopping, chopping and more chopping. We're purists- no food processors here. This is always done by hand.

Giant bowl! I swear a small child could have used it to take a bath!

Action shot! (They're stuffing onion peels here, slightly boiled to make them malleable.)


Recipe, for those brave enough to try this at home :) Serves a ton of people.

Nahreen's Dolma


Rice mixture
3 bunches green onions, finely chopped
3 bunches parsley, finely chopped
1 bunch dill, finely chopped
4 plum tomatoes, finely chopped
1 banana pepper (opt.), finely chopped
1+ jalapeƱo pepper (opt.), finely chopped
3 cups white rice (jasmine works well)
1 can tomato paste
2 cans tomato sauce
1 TBSP black pepper
1 TBSP paprika
1 TBSP salt
8 oz. block of tamarind (softened in hot water and strained to remove seeds)
1+ cup oil (I prefer extra-virgin olive oil)

1 16 oz. jar of grape leaves (soaked in hot water until leaves are soft and loose their briney/canned flavor, at least 30 minutes. Change water at least 1 time.)
Cored zucchini (opt.)
Cored tomatoes (opt.)

Dolma sauce
8 oz. block of tamarind (softened in hot water and strained to remove seeds)
2 cans tomato sauce
salt/pepper/paprika to taste
boiling water

1. Place celery stalks (or discarded parsley ends) to cover bottom of large pot to prevent burning/sticking of grape leaves.

2. Combine rice mixture ingredients in large bowl. Fill zucchini and tomato stuffers until full. Using 1 large (or 2 small, overlapping) grape leaves, add desired amount of rice mixture to center and roll like an egg roll (bring in the sides then roll up the dolma). Take care to roll the dolma fairly tightly to prevent them from falling apart.

3. Gently place the stuffed grape/zucchini/tomatoes into a pot (or two), taking care to minimize the amount of free space.

4. Put a plate on top of the dolma to weigh them down (and prevent floating once the sauce has been added).

5. Prepare dolma sauce by combining tamarind, tomato sauce, salt, pepper, paprika, and ~1 cup boiling water. Gently pour on top of dolma. If sauce does not cover dolma, add more boiling water until it just barely covers the dolma.

6. Cook on medium low to medium, covered, for at least 1 hour, or until rice is tender. (During cooking, periodically check to make sure the liquid is not bubbling over.) After the dolma is cooked a significant amount of water may still remain. Remove from heat and allow to rest until much of the water has been absorbed.

Serve warm with yogurt.

Tips: Tamarind paste is typically found in 16 oz blocks and includes the seeds. It can be found at any Middle Eastern food market (and I believe Asian markets as well since it is a common ingredient in Thai cooking). Rose International Market at 1060 Castro St in Mountain View is a great place to find the grape leaves and tamarind.

Notes from my mom to help it from falling apart: 
* Rice to tomato liquid ratio should be 1: 1 1/4
* Fill the dolma with the tomato liquid only to the bottom of the dolma on top. (You should only see the liquid when you push down on the dolma with the plate on top
* Temp should be high at first (to get the sauce warmed up), then to medium, then to low.  Cook for 1 hour total.
* After you turn the burners off, allow the dolma to rest (covered).  This will result in a less liquidy dolma, and perhaps ones that don't completely fall apart.


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