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As a young child, I was a picky eater, despising spinach and hiding carrots under my high chair. I would plead with my mom for pizza Lunchables and TV dinners with chicken nuggets. I was an adventurous eater when it came to anything sugary, but if it grew in the ground, no thank you! What a strange exception, then, that such a picky child loved a dish wrapped in tangy grape leaves.
Dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, are seasoned lamb mixed with minced onions and lemon juice and wrapped up in a tangy grape leaf. Despite my normal aversion to green and leafy vegetables, I would lick lemony sauce off my fingers and beg for more any time we ate them.
I grew up eating dolmas under the watchful eyes of my mom and her best friend, a beautiful artist who taught summer camp in our backyard and always had freezer pops on hand. We would drive to her house in DC and the moms would settle on her shady patio surrounded by blooming trellises. My brother and I would go nuts vying for the attention of her three children (all older, and thus way cooler, than us), bouncing on the trampoline and lovingly hassling her dog. In between our energetic fits, we would return to the patio to make a plate of stuffed grape leaves disappear along with a platter of hummus and pita.
Once I became a busy high schooler, one of my favorite takeout places was a Lebanese restaurant near my school. We always ordered dolmas, spinach fatayer (stuffed pie pastries), and kibbeh (a fried ball of bulghur dough stuffed with lamb and onions). In high school, my school’s open campus policy meant that during lunch, I could sprint to the restaurant, pick up a chicken shawarma sandwich and stuffed grape leaves, and run back with just enough time to scarf them down before class. I have always associated the richness of olive oil and delightful bite of lemon juice with family and comfort food.
When you have high expectations of a favorite childhood meal, it can be intimidating to recreate the dish in your own kitchen. So despite my love of stuffed grape leaves, I hadn’t tried making them on my own until recently. Thankfully homemade dolmas are far easier to make than I expected. It is so satisfying to find my childhood favorite food in the refrigerator for me to pop into my mouth whenever I please.
Dolmas are traditionally made with lamb and rice. For a Paleo version, I based mine on the grain-free version from Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo. Though the originals are made with lamb, I used beef as a better fit for my budget and they were fantastic. If you haven’t checked out Practical Paleo yet, it is an amazing resource on the “why” of the Paleo diet and lifestyle as well as the “how”–that is, how to eat truly delicious and nutritious meals that won’t keep you in the kitchen all day.
Nervous about rolling the dolmas into perfect little cylinders? Never fear- it’s simple! If you’re a visual learner like me, check out this video from Melissa Joulwan, another phenomenal Paleo cookbook author.
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1/3 cup finely diced onion
- 1 1/4 pounds ground beef or lamb
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
- Sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
- 1 cup grated or riced cauliflower
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 2 dozen grape leaves
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 lemon
- 4 bay leaves
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, melt coconut oil and sautee onion until translucent. Add ground meat and spices and cook until only a bit of pink remains. Season with salt and pepper as desired.
- Stir in cauliflower and cook for 2-3 more minutes, then stir in lime juice. Remove from heat.
- Select a 9×13″ baking dish and set it next to your workspace. Gently separate the grape leaves and lay them out one by one.
- Spoon 1-2 tablespoons of the meat mixture into the center of the leaf towards the stem. Roll the bottom of the leaf up over the mixture, fold in the sides, and continue to roll until the tip of the leaf is tucked underneath.
- Place rolled dolmas in the baking dish. Pour 1/4 cup water over the tray. Slice the lemon in two and squeeze half of the lemon over the tray. Slice the other half thinly. Top the dolmas with bay leaves and place a thin lemon slice on top of each.
- Cover the tray with foil and bake for 35 minutes or until the water has almost entirely evaporated. Remove the bay leaves before eating. Dolmas are good served hot or cold, but I prefer to refrigerate them for a day, then drizzle with extra lemon juice and olive oil and serve cold.