While cooking methods differ across cultures the name "Dolma" which means stuffed in Turkish seems the most common name given to these dishes. The reason for a Turkish name is not because these dishes actually originated from Turkey. The name stuck because the Ottomans borrowed entire culinary traditions from around the empire and created a fusion cuisine.
Most common dolmas are made with meat: Armenians use lamb, pork and beef, Greeks Turks, Iranians and Arabs combine beef and lamb. In the Balkans they go mostly with beef.
I prefer the subcategory of dolmas made without meat and eaten cold either as part of a meze plate or as a separate course by itself. And of all the vegetables that I can stuff, I prefer the green peppers.
8-10 soft green peppers (look for them in ethnic grocery stores and if not, use cubanelle peppers)
5-6 cooking onions
One table spoon of currants
One table spoon of pine nuts
100 grams of rice
Pinch of mint
Pinch of parsley
Pinch of Five spices (you can find them in Chinese stores, or use the version called Four Spices available in most places)
One table spoon of plain tomato sauce
The first trick is to use green peppers grown in the region (Balkan to Caucasus area). They are lighter in color.
And they are less fleshy than regular bell peppers
It is hard to find them in North America so you can substitute Cubanelle peppers.
The second trick is the amount of onion you put in and how you dice them. Because the meat recipe is considered the real thing, many cooks in the region simply take that blueprint and put too much rice and not enough onions in their dolmas. For instance, for the nine peppers pictured above most cooks would use one or two onions and 250 grams of rice.
I use six onions and 100 grams of rice. That's because caramelized onions are the backbone of this recipe.
First thing is to dice them yourself the old fashioned way, meaning, no food processor chopping is allowed. Just remember to keep the root part intact and dice from the stem part of the onion.
Of course, if you want to impress people you can always say that you brunoise them.
But the reality is that you do not need a fine dice like brunoise technique. The pieces can be quite large.
Here is how I did it. Normally, I use yellow cooking onions but for this version I decided to go with red onions.
Put the chopped onions in a pot, add two table spoons of olive oil. Add some pine nuts.
The normal quantity is a table spoon but I usually exaggerate as I like the crunchy texture they bring to the dish.
Here is how they look in the pot.
Let the onions cook on medium heat for about half an hour to forty minutes. By that time they will have become quite sweet (i.e. caramelized) and translucent. And their volume will have been reduced by one third to a half.
Add some currants to provide texture and a different layer of taste. That seems to be an Ottoman thing.
Traditionally, you have to use long grain rice and prepare it by soaking it in hot water for 20 minutes. I simply add some water to my bowl of rice and microwave it for four minutes.
Venere Nero, a black rice of Chinese origin but cultivated in Italy. It has a nutty flavor and makes a very interesting substitute.
It also absorbs more water than long grain rice and takes a lot longer to cook. Consequently, since this is the first time I am making this substitution, I wanted to err on the side of caution and decided to nuke my bowl for 10 minutes. If your rice is crunchy in a dolma dish that is a problem, whereas no one will notice if the rice is a bit soft.
When you take out the rice from the microwave, drain it and add it to the onion mixture. Add the tomato sauce, mint, parsley and five spices. Add one cube of sugar (or a small tea spoon of sugar) and a pinch of salt. Season with some pepper. Add half a glass of water, cover it and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes in low heat.
Prepare the peppers by washing them and removing the stem.
Tip: push the stem inwardly while holding the pepper and it should separate from the rest of the pepper cleanly, then pull it out with all the attached seeds.
Stuff the peppers with the mixture you prepared.
Once you stuffed them, cut thin round pieces off a tomato and use them to plug the opening left by the stem.
In this version I plugged them with grilled red peppers as you can see in the picture below.
Places the stuffed peppers in a non-stick pot vertically (i.e. the stem opening should be upward). Add a small glass of water and a touch of olive oil. Cover and cook in medium heat. Occasionally check to see that there is enough water. Add if necessary. They should be ready in about 25-30 minutes. Check the softness of the peppers and of the rice to make sure that they are done.
The final dish looks like this.
Next time I will roast the pine nuts separately and add them to the onion-rice mixture before I stuff them.
I think they will add a nice touch of color contrasting with black rice.