Dolmeh: Persian-Style Stuffed Chard Leaves (Vegan)
This Swiss chard recipe came as a substitute for dolmeh, our favourite stuffed grape-vine leaves but turned out so good I’d be making them again and again. It was that time of year when I had woken up from my winter slumber and started craving food from the garden. One of my favourite spring foods is dolmeh (stuffed leaves or veggies). I usually make it with freshly picked grape leaves if I’m lucky to find a good vine with slightly sour, tender and nicely round leaves. But here in the UK I don’t get that lucky too often. Most grape varieties grown here have thicker, downy leaves or the leaves have deep cuts that makes them hard to stuff. Most brined grape leaves I’ve tried were quite tough too. But there are other leaves that can be stuffed to make dolmeh, right?
I grow lots of Swiss chard and beets in my garden. They are the easiest vegetables to grow and if the frosts don’t bite too hard they keep their leaves even through winter. I always thought it was a shame to discard the leaves after using the rainbow chard stems that come in bright red, yellow and green so used the leaves much as I would use spinach. But one day it occurred to me to substitute them for grape leaves. It worked, much much better than I thought.
Stuffed leaves and vegetables, appear in most Middle Eastern cuisines. Every country has its own version and so does Iran. The Persian name (dolmeh) derives from a Turkish root meaning to stuff. Armenian tolma and Greek dolmas are other variants of the same name.
The flavour of the stuffed leaves hugely varies from place to place. Iran has several variants of stuffed grape leaves (dolmeh barg mo) from lightly sour, to sour as well as a sweet and sour version. Some are vegetarian, others made with meat. Some are flavoured with herbs, others with spices. some are made with rice, others with bulghur or a mixture of the two.
My title says Persian-style and that’s what these gorgeous bundles of flavour and goodness are. Persian dolmeh are different in several ways including shape. They are shaped like little square parcels rather than rolls like everywhere else. I felt more comfortable rolling the chard leaves like spring rolls but the taste is very very Persian because of the herbs that I’ve used to flavour these.
Persian rice is very hard to come by here and I don’t like the texture and look of basmati, the most often used substitute, in dolmeh. I used arborio rice for making my dolmeh. It’s the kind of rice used for making risotto and very tasty. I’ve made it with Thai Jasmine and it works really well too.
As you can see in the picture below the rice for the stuffing is only half-cooked. it will complete its cooking with the rest of the stuffing ingredients inside the leaves so it can absorb all the lovely flavours from other the herbs and spices without getting too mushy.
In Iran dolmeh are usually made with yellow lentils (split peas). I was feeling a bit adventurous so I went for red kidney beans. I’m glad I did because they looked and tasted great, not to say anything of their protein content.
Did you know there’s a gadget for rolling stuffed grape leaves? It’s a wonderful thing to have if you are making huge quantities and want all your stuffed leaves to be all uniform in shape and size. Here’s a video that demonstrates how the gadget works. In the pictures below you can see how I roll mine by hand. Not that hard really.
I can’t really tell you how much leaves you need for making enough of these parcels of deliciousness. It all depends on how big or small you roll your dolmeh. Let’s say you need about thirty big leaves. Any remaining leaves can be used for other things, like stirring into yoghurt with some mashed garlic and seasoning for a healthy dip. This recipe will make generous appetiser portions for four people.
- 30 largish but tender chard, beet or vine leaves
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 200g Arborio or Thai Jasmine rice
- 15g parsley leaves, finely chopped
- 10g tarragon leaves, finely chopped (or substitute with fresh mint)
- 11/2 tbsp dried mint
- 1 tbsp dried dill (or 10g fresh dill, chopped)
- 2-3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1/4 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
- 1 can of red kidney beans
- Juice of one medium lemon
- Put the chard leaves in a big bowl and pour boiling water on the leaves. Cover with cling film and set aside to soften the leaves.
- Fry the chopped onion in two tablespoons of olive oil on medium low until golden brown. Stir from time to time so it colours evenly. Set aside.
- Bring 600 millilitres of water to boil in a small saucepan, add a pinch of salt and boil the rice briefly until it’s half-cooked. Drain well and put in a large bowl.
- Add the spices, salt, chopped garlic, herbs, beans and fried onions to the rice and mix well.
- Drain the chard leaves and use a couple to cover the bottom of a medium-sized lidded saucepan.
- Lay the leaves on a chopping board one by one and fill with a heaped tablespoon of the stuffing mixture. Patch up the leaves if they are broken or torn. Roll each leaf as shown in the pictures above. Don’t roll too tightly to allow for the further expansion of the stuffing.
- Arrange the stuffed leaves in the prepared saucepan snugly. Depending on the size of your saucepan you may have two or three layers of stuffed leaves.
- Pour enough water on the stuffed leaves to barely cover them. Add the lemon juice and the rest of the olive oil. Cover the dolmeh with a small heatproof plate. This will help keep the stuffed leaves in place. Bring to a very gentle boil on the smallest burner of your cooker and reduced the heat to very low. Cook for thirty minutes or until all the water is absorbed. If your burner is big and the water evaporates too quickly add small amounts of boiling water from time to time. The longer and slower the dolmeh cook, the tastier they will get. At the end of the cooking there shouldn’t be more than a tablespoon or two of water left.
- Turn off the heat, remove the plate and let the dolmeh cool a bit and settle. Carefully remove and arrange on a plate. Pour any remaining juices from the pot over the dolmeh and serve warm or cold. Enjoy!