I want to make dolma, but grape-leaves aren't available here. What can I use instead? I would like to stay as close as possible to the original, grape-leaved dolma, in looks, taste and texture.
Dolma among Armenians and in my household is stuffed zucchini, eggplant, potato, tomato, or onion. We call stuffed grape leaves "Sarma."
Now, the ingredients are similar. Some differences exist in different cultures. For example, you will see Dolma (as in stuffed onion, zucchini, or eggplant) in Iraq use curry while only rice, meat, garlic, and lemon juice are the primary ingredients in Lebanon and Syria
So, for the Sarma in my home, if you don't have grape leaves, you can use a big cabbage. Place it in a plastic bag, and put it in the microwave for 10 minutes, until the top layers are very soft. Then put on some cooking gloves and start peeling each large leaf one by one. I recommend the gloves because it will be very hot and hard to handle right out of the microwave. You may use whatever means you can not to get burnt.
The middle layers will be tough, so put it back in the microwave and heat it for another 10 minutes, then repeat the peeling process.
Back in my Syria, my mom used to boil it for one hour, but since we like to minimize cooking time we just use the microwave. The result is identical and just as delicious.
What I recommend for the filling when using cabbage and grape leaves is as follows:
- 2 cups of short-grain rice
- 1 pound of ground meat (beef, pork, or chicken)
- 80/20 meat to fat ratio is ideal
- 2 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon of minced garlic
- salt and black pepper to taste
- and 1/2 cup lemon juice or to taste
When combining the ingredients, first rinse the rice, then add the remaining ingredients with the meat added in last.
You must cut the middle stem of each cabbage leaf because otherwise, they will be very hard to swallow and digest.
To wrap the Dolma/Sarma, the leaves have to have 2x2 inch dimensions, more or less, so you will have equal sized pieces in a plate. This way it would be very presentable.
So give the leaves their proper shape, lay them down flat, and place a finger-sized dollop (Armenians aren't very faithful to strict recipes like this :P) of filling at the bottom of each leaf. Roll it up so it looks like a small finger or a pen. Make sure to seal the ends so nothing falls out. Do not wrap it too tight, because the rice will expand and it needs room.
Put the completed ones in a pot. I prefer to lay them in a circular pattern, stacking them sort of like a tower but with a hole in the center (I actually put whole cloves of garlic in this hole). Fill the pot with water and a little more lemon juice, if you like the taste. Make sure to weigh down the Sarmas with a plate or some other device.
Put some salt in the water and bring it to a boil. Lower the heat and cover the pot. After about thirty minutes, add some more lemon juice, and boil it once more, and you should be done!
I wish you luck—I view this cuisine as an art form and it thrills me to see questions about it. This can also be a difficult process to overcome with the cabbage leaves but it is worth it. Done with cabbage leaves (or any type of wrapper, for that matter), this dish can be deeeeeelicious!
Extra Trivia: "Lahana," "dolma," and "sarma" in Turkish mean "cabbage," "stuffed," and "wrapping" (as a noun) or "envelopment," respectively.
Of course there are other types of dolma, but they are not supposed to be similar to grape leaf dolma, just like ricotta isn't similar to cheddar, even though they are both cheeses.
To imitate grape-leaf dolma, I would look for a big-leafed green vegetable with some taste on its own and slight acidity. Sadly, most types of salad will be way too tender for this application, the wine leaf has its own toughness and thickness.
I suppose that good candidates will be sorrel and chard. The taste will be appropriate, but they could be both a tad too tender. Blanch them briefly before wrapping, and if part of the stem stays hard and crispy (it always will with Swiss chard), cut the lower part of the leaf off. Another thing to try would be radish greens.
And of course, you can just look for the leaves in a Turkish grocery, they sell them canned. If the cans you find were conserved with vinegar, blanch them to remove the taste.