Making dolma (Turkish for any stuffed dish) calls for so many steps and so much patience that I like to keep it for the days when you cook for the whole week ahead. Waiting for your rice to soak, simmer, steam, cool down and then get cooked in dolma becomes less painstaking if meanwhile you are preparing meat stock to make a soup or pressure cooking chickpeas to turn them into hummus.
This Sunday could have been such a cooking-ahead-day but turned different: the snowfall closed the way up to our farmhouse at the Istanbul countryside. Which meant that early morning we put together a huge breakfast for the guests who arrived the night before and relaxed for the rest of the day as no one else dared the steep hill taking you 500 m above the sea level. Once the breakfast was over we were so happy with the sun and snow that immediately put the rice to soak and went out to made a snowman.
I have missed the snow. I have tended to live at warmer places for the past 10 years (though most of the planet can be considered warmer when compared with the Middle Volga Region where I was born and raised). My childhood days took place at the prehistoric times: prior to global warming and natural disasters things were much more regular. Summers were hot and winters were snowy. No climate-change-pranks.
In winter as a toddler I got packed in a snow suit with a single compartment for legs, wrapped in the furry woolen scarf and left outside in a stroller to breathe in fresh crisp air and nap.
As I grew up I was happy to move from the stroller to the king-size basket mounted on the sleds and lined with warm blankets – much more practical for parents to pull through the high snowdrift when they took me and my younger sister to the kindergarten.
Later the sure part of the winter fun was to slide down from a small hill made by my granddad at our garden. And to make snowman, or provide lead to the adults excited to make one for me.
At school snow (and cold) was a happy excuse to stay at home because classes get officially cancelled when the temperature passes the threshold: if it drops below -25C the juniors are sure to stay at home. Some years it meant skipping weeks of school.
During my university years snow unexpectedly started being annoying as you could not really wear short skirts and thin stockings and generally look pretty. Amazing how priorities change throughout the lifetime.
And then I left and grew to miss the snow. Everywhere I saw it reminded me of home: in Bergen, ever raining Norwegian city that got covered with snow for a week, at the Himalaya ranges, on a Kyrgyz high-altitude meadow turned from later summer delight into the winter wonderland overnight, at the skying resorts of Germany and Austria. And now Turkey gave me a moment of snow happiness.
It snowed and it snowed more and more. All over the place. Parents have left for Istanbul just to spend 5 hours in the traffic from the Asian side to the European that virtually got frozen over the Bosphorus bridge and I was happy we have stayed here this week. Making snowman and watching him getting fatter and fatter every day. And making dolma.
Dolma is a quintessential dish in Turkish cooking, a collection of simple wisdoms. You create plenty with little: a glass of rice and the family is full. You can make the dish everyday or festive: thrown in some onions, tomato paste and black pepper when daily cooking for the family and get more lucrative with pine nuts, currants, cinnamon and allspice when putting together a feast. You use seasonal produce: in summer fresh grape leaves and green peppers, in winter – pickled wine leaves or dried vegetables.
The garlands of dried eggplants, red peppers, zucchini and okra decorate many spice shops at the Istanbul food markets. Whole few visitors view them anything but decoration they are in fact very practical use of the summer abundance during the winter time.
Take dried eggplant: its meat gets carved out and the shells get dried on the sun. Before using they will be soaked in water for a while and hence rehydrated, or ready to be stuffed. Skins of dried eggplants are stronger than those of the the fresh ones so the dried eggplants can be stuffed tighter and make a heartier meal. Plus the dried eggplant’s skin has a bit of meaty texture to that. What a winter treat! So put the rice and the dried eggplants to soak – and go make the snowman!
Stuffed Dried Eggplant (Kuru Patlican Dolmasi)
Stuffed dry eggplant is the Turkish home cooking manifesto itself: make plenty with little, alter the dish from everyday to festive and use seasonal ingredients.
Source: Adapted from Zeliha Irez
Prep Time: 1 Hr 40 Min
Cook Time: 1 Hr 20 Min
Total Time: 3 Hr
- 1 string dried eggplant shells (35-40 pieces), soaked for 1-2 hours in hot water
- 3 cups rice soaked for 1 hour, washed and drained
- 1.5 cup olive oil divided
- 1 large onion finely diced
- 1⁄3 cup fine bulgur
- 1 large tomato finely chopped
- 2 tbsp red bell pepper paste divided
- 1 tsp dry mint
- 1⁄2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp tomato paste divided
- 1 bunch parsley finely chopped, all stalks reserved and few branches reserved
- 9 cups boiling water divided
- 1 tsp ground sumac
- Prepare rice for stuffing: Poor 1/2 cup olive oil in a hot large non-stick pan with a lead. Once the oil is warmed up add onion: cook stirring now and then for 3-5 minutes until translucent. Add pre-soaked, washed and drained rice and cook for 5-7 minutes so that it gets nicely coated in olive oil. Now time to add bulgur, chopped tomato, 1 tbsp red bell pepper paste, dry mint, freshly ground black pepper and 3 tsp salt – mix all well and finally stir in 6 cups boiling water. Cover with the lead and let simmer for about 10 min, or until the rice soaks the water. Set aside covered and leave for about 15 min. Then take off the lead, mix in the finely chopped parsley and let the rice cool down a bit.
- Stuff eggplants: Inspect the kitchen to find the widest cooking pot: it would be ideal to make a single layer of “standing” eggplants instead of layering them. Line the bottom of the pot with the reserved parsley branches and stalks prevent dolma from burning and set aside. Using a teaspoon stuff each dried eggplant shell with the rice mixture but not up to the edge – leave 1 cm on top. Put in the stuffed eggplant in the cooking pot with the rice stuffing facing up. Continue arranging them tightly side by side. Once done pour over 1 cup olive oil. In a medium size ball mix in 1 tbsp tomato paste, 1 tbsp red bell pepper paste, 1 tsp sumac, 1 tsp salt and 3 cups boiling water. Pour the mixture over the dolma. On top of the dolma put a flat heat-proof plate and press hard – it will hold dolma from sliding up when you’re cooking them.
- Cook and serve dolma: Bring to boil on the high heat, bring the heat to medium and cook on the medium heat for about 40 minutes. Check midway to make sure the dolma are not sticking to the bottom of pot and if so you would need to add some boiling water. Serve hot or cooled with thick yoghurt or sour cream. The dish keeps well in a fridge for a few days and in fact tastes better next day.