WHOLEFOOD CUISINE NEWSLETTER
Sign up to receive a weekly peek inside our kitchen.
Stuffed Grape Leaves (Armenian Sarma aka Dolmas) and Armenian Rice Salad
NOTE: You can make this recipe with grape leaves, cabbage, or swiss chard leaves.
Larry and I live in Sonoma County, California—the “Sonoma” of the internationally famous Napa-Sonoma-Mendocino wine region—so we live surrounded by miles of vineyards growing grapes. We watch them through the year as we drive past, going through their lifecycle from bare branches to green leaves, grapes, yellow leaves, and bare branches again.
The green leaves start appearing in April and by now, in early May, the leaves are big enough to make stuffed grape leaves, a tradition from my Armenian grandmother. This is the best time of year to make this popular appetizer because the leaves are fresh and tender. You can continue to make this throughout the summer until the leaves begin to give way to grapes. But you can continue to stuff other leaves that come into season when there are no longer grape leaves. Stuffed swiss chard leaves are my favorite after grape leaves.
Larry’s family has a grape vine that now has grape leaves too, so I couldn’t resist picking leaves to make stuffed grape leaves. In fact, just as I was about to pick leaves off the vine, Larry’s brother actually trimmed the vine and suddenly there were freshly cut branches of grape vine and I could have all the leaves I wanted. Larry picked the leaves and brought them into the kitchen for me to stuff, so this really was a family dish from our garden.
When I was very small, like under 5 years old, I used to spend my summers in Fresno, California with my Armenian grandparents. They lived on a big wide avenue where everyone was Armenian. Everyone spoke Armenian to each other. Everyone cooked and ate Armenian food. My grandfather would put on records of Armenian music and pick me up and dance around the living room.
And so I began to eat—and prepare—Armenian food at a very early age.
My grandmother had a high stool in the corner of the kitchen. She would bring it close to the counter while she was cooking and put me in the chair. And she would give me little bits of food to prepare.
And that is where I learned to roll grape leaves. It’s so a part of me, I still remember 60 years later.
My grandparents had grapevines, so making stuffed grape leaves (which we called “sarma,” the proper Armenian name) began by going out to the garden and picking the leaves off the vines. Then my grandmother let them sit in hot water for a few minutes until they were soft, and then we started rolling the leaves around the filling. She had a big aluminum pot with a steamer insert in the bottom and we would pile the sarma up to fill the pot.
One thing I love about stuffed grape leaves is that they are very traditional, from a time when all there was to eat was what was growing nearby. And since there were grapevines, Armenians made use of not only the grapes, but the leaves as well. And this recipe also contains the dried grapes in the form of currents. So we have the new growth of leaves in the spring paired with the grapes of the previous year carried over as currents or raisins.
If you have ever eaten stuffed grape leaves in a restaurant or delicatessen, forget them. These are MUCH better and very easy to make. And fun!
Another thing I love about this recipe is that it is made with rice, which is a staple in the Armenian culture. Rice was my grandfather’s favorite food. It is interesting to me that today I eat brown rice every day, which is consistent with my Armenian heritage.
While putting together this recipe I went back and looked at recipes in two old Armenian cookbooks and found the original recipes called for stuffing the leaves with uncooked rice. I find it much easier to use cooked rice, and I think that’s the way my grandmother did it. It’s easier to mix all the ingredients into cooked rice and have it hold together while you roll the leaves.
NOTE ABOUT CHOOSING SWISS CHARD LEAVES: A Swiss chard leaf has a stem running up the middle that gets narrower and narrower as it gets toward the top of the leaf. To make sarma, we only use the top of the leaf only, where the stem is narrow.
NOTE ABOUT THE STEAMER RACK: I haven’t made these since I’ve been living with this tiny kitchen and I didn’t know if I still had my old vegetable steamer, since I rarely steam vegetables. I was about to go buy one when it suddenly occurred to me that in ancient Armenia there were no metal steamer racks. So then, how did our great-grandmothers cook karma? I pulled out my Armenian cookbooks and the answer was they lined the pot with grape leaves, of course. So you may cook them either way, with a modern industrial steamer basket if you have one, or just line the pot with leaves, as I will do from now on.
NOTE ABOUT ROLLING THE LEAVES: This is not industrial food where every piece comes out of the machine exactly the same, and you should not attempt to make these conform to any size or shape. Since ancient times these were made by hand by women and children and the correct size is the size of the leaf with filling the size of the maker’s hand. So when I was a child, the plate was filled with some small ones from my hand and some large ones from grandma’s hand. A machine will never be able to duplicate this, nor will those perfectly sized pieces from a box ever be filled with love.
makes about 24 stuffed grape leaves, depending on the size of leaves and the size of hands.
- 3 cups cooked brown rice
- ¼ cup grated yellow onion
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon chopped dill
- 1 teaspoon chopped mint
- 2 tablespoons currants
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon paprika
- 1/8 teaspoon allspice
- 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
- 24 grape leaves (or swiss chard leaves if you can’t get grape leaves)
- olive oil for drizzle
- 1 lemon for a squeeze of juice
- Prepare a pot with a steamer rack in the bottom. Add water until the level reaches just below the rack. [like steaming vegetables]. OR simply line the bottom of the pot with fresh grape leaves.
- In a bowl, combine all the ingredients—except leaves. Mix them thoroughly with a soup spoon.
- If you are using grape leaves, remove the stems, then place the leaves in a large flat bowl and cover with boiling water. In a few minutes the color will change and then they are ready to roll. If you are using swiss chard leaves cut across the width of the leaf with a knife, at the point where the stem begins to be thicker. Place all the leaves in a pile in a bowl. [Use the remainder of the leaves in another recipe.]
- To stuff the leaves, take one leaf and put it on a cutting board, with the tip of the leaf facing away from you and the underside of the leaf facing up. Put a heaping soup-spoonful of the rice mixture in the center of your left hand and squeeze it to form a log. Then place the rice centered on the leaf right above the stem at the end closest to you. Wrap the bottom of the leaf over the rice, then fold the two sides of the leaf over the log and roll away from your body. Place the sarma in the pot, with the end of the leaf down. No need to use toothpicks to hold it together. Repeat with all 24 leaves. It’s OK to pile the sarma on top of each other in the pot.
- Add about a 1/2 inch of water to the bottom of the pot. Steam for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let them cool.
- Sarma is traditionally served at room temperature, but I also eat them cold from the refrigerator. It is essential to drizzle them with olive oil and fresh-squeezed lemon juice just before serving. I also like to add strings of lemon zest for extra lemon flavor.
Armenian Rice Salad
Now, if you don’t want to roll all those grape leaves or grape leaves are not in season, I highly encourage you to make an Armenian Rice Salad by mixing all the filling ingredients together and eating it as a salad. I would use green onions instead of white. This is a delicious salad with Middle Eastern flavors that is a perfect cold dish on a warm summer evening.