Whenever I am shopping at the shuk I see art, the subtle curve of the eggplant, texture of the cauliflower, smooth green of the zucchini, ruby reds of cherries. These are not commodies but things of beauty- telling tales of the sun and rains (and ok, perhaps the pesticides and fertilizers as well). It is more beautiful than anything in a museum so it is not surprising that I regularly buy too much. For me it’s like finding a Picasso or Cezanne on sale for only four shekels a kg which always seems to me like an incredibly good buy even while my neighbor says “Four shekels a kg! a ripoff, I bought it for three!”. Then I get home and am confronted with reality- how am I going to cook all the zucchini, eggplants, cauliflower herbs and other seasonal produce?
Back in the golden age of the Ottoman Empire there would be only one answer to this question- stuff it. And indeed the Ottoman Turks, who were heavily influenced by the Medieval Arab cookery, set up a magnificent kitchen of their own at the Topkapi palace of Istanbul. They loved all variety of stuffed vegetables and fruits and left a lasting culinary impression throughout the lands which they occupied- The Middle East, Levant and North Africa and even in areas beyond its borders. Contrary to the heavily spiced and sweetened dishes of the Middle Ages, the Turkish food was more subtle in flavor and included the newly discovered crops such as tomatoes and peppers from the New World.
Stuffed vegetables, or dolmas as they are known, have the simplest of ingredients- just wholesome vegetables, rice, sometimes ground meat, herbs and spices. In many recipes, such as this Iraqi one, stuffed vegetables are simmered in tomato sauce, a vegetable which the Spaniards introduced to North Africa and the Turks later incorporated into their cuisine. Cooks soon relied heavily on tomatoes which replaced many of the traditional ingredients in Middle Eastern cuisine such as lemon juice, sour grapes (unripe), sumac liquid, vinegar and sour plums. However, there are still areas where “white sauce” is preferred to the ubiquitous tomato such as my grandmother’s Kurdish stuffed grape leaves whereas in Mosul of Northern Iraq, they prepare it red. This recipe is from the food historian and cookbook author Nawal Nasrallah whose book Delights from the Garden of Eden is a wonderful compendium of recipes, culture, history and folklore of Iraq from the ancient times until today.
In the kitchen there is a tool for every job, and a proper vegetable corer is needed for this recipe. I have bought several but my favorite is the one I bought in Nazareth which has a bladed edge for easy removal of the pulp. When I first presented these dolmas to my son he said “this isn’t the regular kind that you make”, in an accusing tone, but once he tasted he simply said “Mmm, these are good”
Stuffed Vegetables- Mosuli Style Dolma
(Al-Dolma al Mosuliya)
500 grams (1 pound) lean ground meat
2 1/2 cups rice (Jasmine is preferred as it is stickier than other long grain rice such as basmati), washed, soaked in water for 30 minutes and drained
1 medium onion, chopped and lightly fried in 1-2 tablespoons of oil
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped
4 garlic cloves, grated (or crushed)
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon baharat (Arabic five spice powder)
50 grams (3 tablespoons) tomato paste
Juice of two lemons
50 grams of tomato paste diluted in 2 1/2 cups of water, or more as needed.
Vegetables that can be stuffed:
In a big bowl combine all the ingredients for the filling and mix well.
Stuffing the vegetables:
Core the vegetables such as eggplant and zucchini. Properly cored zucchini should have walls thin enough to allow light to pass through it (I am still practicing). If using onions make one slice into the core of the onion and put it in the microwave for a few minutes to soften it. Check periodically to see if the layers of the onions soften and can easily be pulled away from one another.
Stuff the zucchini 3/4 full to allow for rice to expand. Stuff grape leaves as described here. For onions, separate the layers and put a small amount of rice mixture at one end and roll the onion firmly to completely enclose the filling.
Prepare a wide pot:
Coat a wide pot with a thin layer of oil and cover the bottom with grape leaves, slices of carrot, zucchini or onion. I didn’t coat the bottom but this helps to keep the bottom layer from burning or sticking if cooked too long.
Add the vegetables to prepared pot and cover with sauce. The sauce should barely cover the vegetables. Lay a heavy plate on top of the vegetables, pushing down to remove air bubbles and to keep them from moving and opening during cooking. Make sure there is enough sauce to barely cover the vegetables once the plate has been pushed down. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook for about 1 hour. Remove from heat and leave covered for an additional 15 minutes.
I have never attempted to unmold a pot of stuffed vegetables but to do this, remove the plate from above the vegetables and invert a large plate or platter on top of the pot. Flip the pot quickly while holding the plate in place. Hopefully the dolmas will slip out beautifully.