Middle Eastern Stuffed Vegetables

by Sarah on February 23, 2010

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)

Filling:

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

For sauce:

50 grams of tomato paste diluted in 2 1/2 cups of water, or more as needed.

Vegetables that can be stuffed:

Grape leaves

Zucchini

Onions

Peppers

Eggplant

Filling:

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.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Yael the Finn February 23, 2010 at 10:14 am

Such beautiful pictures! I am so enthralled too by the beauty of all the colorful veggies every time I visit a shuk! Your dolmas look so yummy!

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Celeste February 23, 2010 at 10:22 am

Amazing! Beautiful! & best of all tasty.
I think the colorful array of vegetables is one of the most beautiful sights in a market, besides the spices sitting in their burlap bags, piled up high like an architectural design.
I remember fondly eating the stuffed eggplant prepared for us. I could only eat two small eggplant but oh I wished I could enjoy more.
I will definitely try this recipe.
Such wonderful food memories of people & travel.

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Margit February 23, 2010 at 11:14 am

Oh no, Sarah! How I envy you! You should come and look at the supermarkets here, where expensive tomatoes are a colour between beige and faint orange. And everything comes in a kind of plastic basin with clingfilm on top. The markets on the Continent are probably what I miss most here in Britain – but of course even those weren’t on a par with the lovely vegetables you get in Israel!

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Sarah February 23, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Margit, You are always invited to visit, we can go on a shopping spree at the shuk!

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tasteofbeirut February 23, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Sarah
You could also dry them! I guess that is best done in the summer! Beautiful photos, you make me want to make some now!

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Annie Ozsarac February 23, 2010 at 11:33 pm

Hi there,
I have been enjoying reading your blog and have already made a couple of recipes. I too love pazars, what we call them here in Istanbul, so I connected with this recent post. You should try some recipes from the Turkish Mardin cuisine. Amazing stuff and quite different from the fare we get here in Istanbul.
Ellinize saglik (health to your hands),
Annie

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Yael February 24, 2010 at 4:36 am

hello from Vienna, finally managed to get some internet access. Loved the food, it looks so good, makes me miss Home…

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Carol Egbert February 25, 2010 at 9:19 am

I’ve been shopping in the Sicilian version of a Souk every day and I love being able to get vegetable that have just been harvested.

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Flyingroo February 25, 2010 at 9:40 am

You forgot one veggie that can be stuffed – the leek! Only the white part is used, usually cut in 2-3 pieces, the internal leaves removed so that one obtains a “tube”, a vegetable canelloni if you wish. Make sure you remove only enough interior layers as the walls aren’t too thin or too thick.

For a vegetarian filling use rice with mushrooms, or rice with walnuts – they are equally delicious to the ones meat-stuffed.

Peace on earth

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Sarah February 25, 2010 at 10:03 am

Leeks would be perfect to stuff, thanks for the great idea. They also happen to be just the right size now.

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Flyingroo February 25, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Also, try stuffing tomatoes, sorrel leaves, fig leaves, greens (collard, turnip, mustard, chard, kale etc), bok choy, apples (especially with groud pork or vegetarian), quince (with rice and walnuts), artichokes, jicama, chinese radish, etc.
Rice can be replaced by barley.

A bit of trivia: it is called dolma when it’s stuffed (like the peppers, zucchini, etc) and sarma when it’s rolled (like the leaves).

Bon appetite!

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Sarah February 25, 2010 at 11:40 pm

thanks flyingroo, I have stuffed tomatoes, grape leaves, mulberry leaves, swiss chard, artichokes and Jerusalem sage leaves. I heard of stuffing fig leaves and I have a baby tree in my back yard (leafless at this time) and would love to try. Still need to try some on your list like sorrel leaves (I made soup out of that) and collard and turnip greens.
My grandmother from Kurdistan calls the stuffed grape leaves yaphrach (yafrach).

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f February 25, 2010 at 6:28 pm

محشي روعـــــــــــــــــــة

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Sarah February 25, 2010 at 11:35 pm

thank you! I used the google translator:
Stuffed magnificence
I really should learn Arabic

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Claudia February 25, 2010 at 7:45 pm

I so – so envy you and those fresh vegetables. We are still in the dead of winter living on trucked in produce and frozen – the stuffing is simply grand and the vegetables are a work of art.

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Sarah February 25, 2010 at 11:49 pm

Stella , thank you, you are lucky you had a Greek nanny, Greeks make some incredible food. it is time consuming but it’s worth it :-)

Claudia, Thanks, I do love vegetables but I will always miss a real winter- with snow! have not seen snow for the longest time.

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Stella February 25, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Amazing-looks like a lot of work. My Greek nanny used to make stuff like this for us, and we always loved it.

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UmmBinat November 15, 2010 at 9:04 am

DH asked for dolmas his mom would make with tomato sauce (She is Iraqi). I always make them the other way in a beautiful Greek style. I will try these with an assortment of vegetables and report back insha Allah.

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Sarah November 15, 2010 at 9:42 am

UmmBinat, I hope the recipe works out for you. Nawal Nasrallah has a wonderful cookbook, with many other Iraqi favorites.

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UmmBinat November 15, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Thank you I totally intend to take a look at it from the library.

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UmmBinat November 17, 2010 at 6:28 pm

Made these with regular green zucchini cut in half, whole tomato, Cooking onions, red bell peppers, and lined with carrots on the bottom, which were delicious. I was afraid it was not going to be enough liquid too cook the rice properly so I added too much. I think I would use a tomato sauce if I were to make this again. I think that is how DH’s mom makes it. I was proud of making this but it didn’t live up to DH’s mom’s but then that’s OK it’s his mother. It does taste good. DH didn’t love it though. Thanks for giving me opportunity to make all sorts of stuffed vegetables in the same pot as the Iraqis do.

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Heba @ midEATS February 4, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Hi Sarah! Wonderful post! Love to learn about how the different Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries cook similar dishes. I just posted about a vegan version of stuffed bell peppers and squash: http://mideats.com/2012/02/bell-peppers-and-squash-stuffed-with-quinoa-beans-and-vegetables-vegan-and-gluten-free/ I also have an Egyptian version of stuffed grape leaves: http://mideats.com/2011/10/grape-leaves-stuffed-with-rice-and-ground-beef/ and an Egyptian version of stuffed white eggplants: http://mideats.com/2011/08/bitingan-abyad-mahshi-stuffed-white-eggplants/ :)

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Sam Ana August 8, 2012 at 3:18 am

Hi Sarah,
Thank you for all your lovely recipes!
I love to eat and make dolma!

Keep doing what you’re doing!

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Nawal Nasrallah January 31, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Hi Sarah,
I have just noticed that I was credited with Paula Wolfert’s cookbook. Of course I wish I had written it myself, but just for the record, my book is Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine. By the way, check our my new website, I gave it a complete makeover.

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Sarah February 2, 2013 at 4:32 am

Thanks Nawal, I’ll correct that. Wonderful that you have a blog now to share your recipes and knowledge of food history, I’ll take a look at the new design. Best, Sarah

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