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Dolmas by microwave

When we first moved to Pasadena 10 years ago, one of my favorite places for Sunday dinners out was Pita! Pita!, a family-run Lebanese restaurant in the “Old Town” section of the city. One of the reasons I loved it was the usual reason to love middle eastern food: the mostly vegetarian mezze were wonderful, and the main dishes were knockouts. Long-cooked lamb, roast chicken, fish grilled or under tehina sauce, vegetable stews with a surprising bite of pineapple in them. Even though I couldn’t eat the meat dishes, I could certainly appreciate them by smell. Everything was modestly priced and generous along with it.

The other reason I loved it was that the family that ran it had made their restaurant the kind of place families went for an old-country kind of Sunday dinner with all the uncles and aunts. Pita! Pita! was housed in one of a row of narrow spaces along Fair Oaks, converted from what I think was once a schoolhouse. The narrowness didn’t stop them from putting a couple of large old-fashioned dining room tables in with the smaller ones for couples. They treated their customers like family, you could sit and eat at a leisurely pace and converse, and we never came away anything less than happy. And certainly never hungry.

Which is why I still miss the place. The family ended up realizing they couldn’t make a go of it without charging astronomical prices or wearing themselves out and decided instead to run a smaller, cafeteria-style lunch spot with fewer and simpler dishes on the main business street. And I can’t blame them at all. The food they serve now–more mezze and fast grilled items–is still as good, but the long-cooked family-style dishes and the leisurely Sunday nights I’ll keep having to miss.

I grew up with hummus, tehina, felafel and tabbouleh, which are Israeli standards too and popular among Jews in the U.S. My mother made them from the dried mixes and cans of prepared tehina when they finally became available in our supermarket. In Israel I learned to make them from scratch, but one thing I didn’t know how to make was stuffed grape leaves or dolmas. My sister had married someone who did and on one weekend visit she showed me the ropes.

I love dolmas but they are not quick to make, not at all. We rolled a loooooottt of grape leaves that afternoon (her husband had bought the econo-jar at a local Arab market), and stuck them tight in a pot, plated down so they didn’t float and unwind, and boiled them with lemon and olive oil for more than an hour. They were wonderful but you would never want to do it on a regular basis!

In the spirit of “what can you cook in a microwave instead of the regular way,” I have gone back and made dolmas at home–in a microwave. It works! You can cook them in a few minutes rather than an hour-plus of boiling and having to top up the water so nothing scorches, and they come out beautifully.

Unfortunately, the microwave, miracle machine though it be, will not help at all with the rolling, which is the hard part. The best I can do is say that microwaving lets you do a few at a time if you feel like it–say, 10-20 dolmas, not 50-100. What you do with the rest of the grape leaves in the econojar is up to you.

Grape leaves come brined in rolls of 20 or so, either a single roll in a skinny jar (Krinos) or a big pickle-jar with four rolls (Cortas, other brands). When you buy them, inspect the rolls and make sure there are no little fluorescent green or yellow spots on them–you’ll know if you see them; capers also get this sometimes. I’m not sure if it’s harmful or not, but I stay away from it. I’d keep the other rolls in the brine in the fridge and make sure to use them up within a month, or else take the rolls and freeze them in ziplock sandwich bags with the air squeezed out–and use them within a couple of months so they don’t get freezer burn.

Dolmas in the Microwave

  • Roll of brined grape leaves ~ 20-30
  • 1 c raw rice (not “minute rice” or parboiled) or bulgur (cracked wheat or tabbouleh grain, plain)
  • 1 med/big ripe tomato
  • 1/4 onion or 1-2 scallions
  • 1 T dill (a few good sprigs fresh is best if you have fresh)
  • several sprigs or small handful fresh curly parsley
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • olive oil and the other half lemon for cooking

1. Partially or almost-completely cook the rice or tabbouleh in the microwave: put it in a pyrex bowl or microwaveable container, cover with ~1/2-3/4 inch of water, microwave covered on HIGH for ~2-2.5 minutes, let sit and absorb the water several minutes until nearly done, drain excess moisture.

2. While the grain is cooking, rinse off the roll of grape leaves and then soak them in a big Pyrex bowl to get rid of some of the salt. Change the water once. [Note: traditional recipes say soak the grape leaves an hour in cold water. Some others say pour boiling water over them and let them soak. If you want to split the difference in a microwaveable way, you could rinse them, put them in the Pyrex bowl with water to cover, nuke 2-3 minutes on HIGH and then change the water.]

3. Blend the tomato, onion or scallion, herbs and lemon juice in a food processor and mix with the drained rice or bulgur–include the tomato juice. Let cool enough to handle.

4. Stuff the grape leaves–this is the hard part. Take a stack of grape leaves and drain them on a plate. Cut off the stems carefully without tearing the leaves. Lay out one leaf vein-side up and stem end toward you. Put a spoonful of the filling–not more–on the leaf right above where the stem joint was. Roll the leaf over it–tightly but carefully so you don’t tear–and tuck the side leaves over it halfway through, then keep rolling away from you. Place each stuffed grape leaf, flap edge down, in a tight layer in a  microwaveable container or dish.

5. When you’re done rolling (nothing says you have to do the whole thing in one go if you get sick of it after 10 or you just want 10, just put the leftover filling and the grape leaves in the fridge) pour a little water carefully over the layer of grape leaf rolls. Maybe a quarter-inch of water. Squeeze the other half lemon over the whole thing, and drizzle a little olive oil over it– maybe a couple of tablespoons worth. Cover the dish or container and microwave on high 2-3 minutes for 10, maybe 3-4 minutes for 20+. Check one for doneness–careful, it’ll be pretty hot–you want the leaves tender and the grain cooked through. Maybe go another minute if you need to.

Let them cool and chill in the fridge. Serve with tzatziki, raita, tehina, or other yogurt-based dip.

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