Are you thrilled by dolma?
I know, me neither.
Especially the ones wrapped in dull khaki-colored grape leaves. The ones you see in deli cases and on bad retro-cocktail platters. Stuffed with meat or rice, they always seem dead to me. Dead, as in made weeks ago.
But in Istanbul last month, I had a total change of heart.
In her teaching kitchen, Selin and her husband Can showed me how fresh green chard leaves—big, billowy and so luscious that they seemed to have been cut from someone’s garden that very morning—could be used to create delectable little dolma. Stuffed with meat and rice, spiked with aromatic herbs and sweet spices, the bite-sized rolls were simmered in a sunny broth infused with Turkish red pepper paste. They emerged, burnished and glowing with delicate flavor.
What a revelation: Little morsels of deliciousness!
Chard is the vegetable diva of the moment: Big blowsy bunches are flooding the market and there’s no escaping their gorgeousness: Tender deeply veined leaves, emerald green—unless you’ve got a bundle of rainbow chard with vivid gold and crimson stems—and that umami-like sweetness that leafy vegetables only acquire mid-season, when they’ve reached adolescence but are still under the age of consent.
The great thing is that you can put almost anything you want inside a chard roll, which means you can feed the carnivores and vegetarians at your table in one go. Meat- eaters will love Selin’s original recipe: ground meat (I used lamb and beef) mixed with rice, sweet red pepper, onions, tomato and lots of fresh dill and parsley. If you can find real Turkish red pepper paste, whisk it into the water in which they will be simmered.
And vegetarians will delight in a version just for them. After my friend Demir raved about chard rolls filled with rice, pine nuts and currants, I riffled through Selin’s recipe booklet looking for a similar stuffing. There it was, hiding in a recipe for aromatic rice stuffed bell peppers with olive oil.
Would it work for the chard rolls? “It will be delicious!” Selin emailed. “The rice should be cooked al dente. Don’t add any tomato or red pepper paste to the water, just olive oil and a tablespoon of salt. Big kiss!”
Well, there you go. I’ve probably made 150 to 200 chard rolls this week, and I can promise you that no one is complaining.
Bring your appetite to the table!
Chard Rolls for Carnivores: Lamb with Dill, Parsley and Sweet Red Pepper
Makes about 60 chard rolls.
1 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, stem and seeds removed, coarsely chopped
1 medium tomato, cored and coarsely chopped
1 pound ground meat (beef, lamb or a mixture of the two)
¼ cup rice
½ bunch flat leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped
½ bunch fresh dill, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
1/2 teaspoon Marash biber, or ¼ teaspoon other red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon salt
3 bunches large leaf chard
2 cups warm water
3 tablespoons Turkish red pepper paste, or tomato paste
Plain yogurt for serving
1. Pulse the onion, red pepper and tomato in a food processor until it is finely chopped, but not mushy. Scrape the vegetables into a large bowl.
2. Add the ground meat, rice, herbs, pepper and salt to the bowl, and using your hands, work all the ingredients together so that they are well mixed. This is a primally satisfying experience by the way, so try not to be squeamish about plunging your hands into the raw meat. Set aside.
3. Wash the chard leaves and cut off the stems. (You can save the stems for a delicious stir-fry, by the way.) Bring a big pot of water to a full rolling boil. Drop the leaves into the pot and blanch them for 1 to 2 minutes, until they have wilted. (You can do this in batches to maintain the heat of the water.) Don’t boil them or the leaves may begin to fall apart.
4. Remove the leaves from the pot and let them drain in a strainer set over a heat-proof bowl. When the leaves are cool enough to handle, spread them out, one at a time, on a cutting board, face down, and cut away the tough central rib with a sharp paring knife.
5. Get ready to roll: If the leaf is very large—five or more inches wide—cut it in half lengthwise and use each half to make a roll. If the leaf is smaller, use the whole leaf to make a roll, but be sure to overlap the two cut sides once the center rib has been removed. If any leaves are badly tattered, set them aside—you can use pieces to patch holes in the other leaves.
6. About an inch from the bottom of the leaf, place a scant tablespoon of the meat mixture. Using your fingers, start rolling the leaf vertically up over the filling. Roll it as tightly as you can, folding in the sides as you go.
When you get to the top of the leaf, the filling should be encased in at least four or five layers of leaf and the sides should be enclosed as well.
7. Repeat this with the rest of the leaves until you are done. At this point you can refrigerate the rolls until you’re ready to cook.
8. In two medium pots, or one large pot, arrange the chard rolls neatly on the bottom, one right next to another. If necessary, make a second neat layer on top.
9. Whisk the red pepper paste, if you’re using it, or tomato paste into the warm water. If you’re using two pots, pour half of the liquid over the rolls in each pot. For one large pot, pour in all or most of the liquid. Important: The liquid should come up to the “shoulders” of the top layer, so add or subtract a little if necessary. Do not totally submerge the rolls in liquid.
10. Cover and simmer over very low heat for 50 minutes. Check the water level once or twice. Most of it will be absorbed while the rolls are cooking, but if the heat is too high, the pot could dry up. If necessary, add a tablespoon or two of water.
11. To serve, carefully remove the dolma using tongs and place them on a large platter or shallow serving bowl. If any of the cooking liquid is left, pour it over the rolls. Eat with a dollop of plain yogurt.
Chard Rolls for Vegetarians: Rice, Currants, Pine Nuts and Mint
This is a composite of two of Selin’s recipes. The rolling technique is similar to the recipe above, but the filling is adapted from her recipe for Aromatic Rice Stuffed Bell Peppers with Olive Oil—also rather tasty. It’s best to let the rice cool to room temperature—or even refrigerate it overnight—before making the rolls. Since the rice plumps up a bit while cooking, do not roll the dolma super-tight. Give the filling a little room to expand.
Makes about 60 rolls.
1 cup rice
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons dried currants
¼ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1-1/2 tablespoons dried mint
¾ teaspoon cassia cinnamon or 1 teaspoon Ceylon cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground allspice
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup Italian flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
½ cup fresh dill, finely chopped
3 bunches large leaf chard
2 cups hot water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
1. Cover the rice with warm water mixed with one tablespoon salt and soak for 30 minutes. Drain and rinse with cool water. Drain again and set aside.
2. Soak the currants for 5 to 10 minutes in warm water to cover, until they are soft. Drain and set aside.
3. In a large saucepan over medium to medium low heat, gently sauté the pine nuts in olive oil until they are golden. Don’t let them get too dark! Add the onions and continue to sauté, for 6 or 7 minutes, until they are soft and sweet-tasting. Add the drained rice, currants, mint, cinnamon and allspice, stirring gently to mix the ingredients. Add one cup of hot water and stir once to combine. Cover the pan and simmer gently until the water is absorbed, about 5 or 6 minutes. Lift the lid: if there is any water left, simmer it for another minute or two. Then let it sit covered for another 5 minutes. The rice should be slightly al dente.
4. Let the rice cool a little, then stir in the pepper, parsley and dill. You can either set the rice aside at this point, to cool to room temperature, or refrigerate it overnight.
5. When you are ready to cook, prepare the chard leaves as in steps 3, 4 and 5 in the recipe above.
6. Then follow the same instructions for rolling as in steps 6 and 7 in the recipe above. Remember not to roll the dolma too tightly, since the rice will need a little room to expand.
7. In two medium pots or one large pot, neatly arrange the chard rolls in rows, one roll right next to another. Make a second layer on top if necessary.
8. Whisk the olive oil and salt into the hot water. If using two pots, pour one cup of hot water over the rolls in each pot. If you are using one large pot, pour in all or mostmof the hot water. The water should just come up to “shoulders” of the rolls, so add or subtract a little if necessary. Cover the pot(s) and simmer gently over very low heat for 30 minutes.
9. To serve, carefully remove the rolls from the pot using tongs and arrange them on a serving platter or in a shallow bowl. Give them a few minutes to cool down before eating—the flavor of the herbs is much more vibrant when the rolls are just warm.