savoy cabbage dolmas with eggplant

We went to one of Will Gilson’s pop-up restaurants, this one chocolate themed for V-Day, at the Taza Chocolate Factory in Somerville a couple weeks ago.  Pop-Ups I think are a tricky combination – on one hand, you have the expectation (and price) of eating in a restaurant, and on the other hand, the reality of feeding people en mass, like at a wedding.  Flat serving 70 people five courses out of a make-shift kitchen with rented equipment cannot be easy.

All that aside, there were some definite highs.  After a giant kiss shaped tinfoil mound hiding bulger and duck pilaf emerged as our first coarse, I half expected to see Willy Wonka poke his head around the kitchen door.  The whole meal was buoyed by a clever playfulness that was as much fun to watch as eat.  Flavor wise, I thought the meal’s greatest successes were its forays into North African flavors.  The main dish was a piece of perfectly cooked lamb with cocoa-nib jus and next to it and subtlety spiced lamb dolma wrapped in Savoy cabbage.  The lamb chop was beautiful, but the dolma stole the show. 

With North Africa on my mind and in the news lately, and the pop-up dolma as inspiration, I set out to capture some of that flavor in a more veggie-centered dolma of my own.  The filling here is hands down delicious – eggplant and rice soaked with warm spices, sweet onions, and herbs.  I couldn’t stop snacking on it straight from the pan.  I think I strayed a little from the North African flavors on the finishing – not sure how to bake the dolmas, I opted for tomato sauce which fits the bill for most cabbage rolls.  Next time I’d like to try baking the dolmas with just a little butter and water in the pan or maybe a bed of nicely caramelized onions, as the tomato sauce overwhelmed some of the subtle flavors of the filling.  I think a pureed or roasted winter squash would be a great company for the tomato-less version.  We ate ours as is with a few crumbles of feta cheese.  

Dolmas have a pretty broad interpretation – simply any stuffed vegetable, they are made all over the Mediterranean.  This recipe uses Savoy cabbage as a wrapper, but feel free to get creative here – swiss chard might be nice, or filled peppers, zucchini, or eggplant.  Makes about 12 dolmas and serves 4 to 6. 

For the Dolmas          

  • 6 oz ground lamb or beef (Omit or replace with ½ cup lentils for a vegetarian version.)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil (You may or may not need this depending on the fat content of you meat.  If going vegetarian, use it!)
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 small bunch scallions, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 small eggplant, cubed
  • 1 cup rice
  • ¼ cup golden raisins or dried currants
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 to 2 ½ cups water
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Pinch of ground cloves
  • Freshly grated nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh mint (or 1 tbsp dried)
  • 1 head Savoy cabbage
  • 2 cups tomato sauce or 2 tbsp butter and/or some caramelized onions (See header.)

Make the Filling:  Place a large heavy skillet over medium heat and brown your meat (if using.)  Pour off any excess fat, reserving 2 tbsp.  Alternatively, if your meat is very lean, add 2 tbsp olive oil.  Add the onions, scallions, and garlic, reduce the heat and sweat until soft and fragrant 3-5 minutes.  Add the eggplant, rice, raisins or currants, 2 cups of water, and spices (not the fresh parsley or mint) and season with salt and pepper.  Increase the heat and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer 30 minutes or until the rice is tender, but not falling apart.  Check periodically – if all the water is absorbed and the rice is not cooked, add an additional ½ cup of water.  Taste for seasoning, adjust as needed, stir in the fresh herbs, and set aside.   

Assemble and Bake:  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Set a large soup pot of salted water over high heat to boil.  Remove the leaves from the cabbage.  Add them to the boiling water and cook 5 minutes until tender.  Meanwhile, have a large bowl of cold water ready.  Transfer the cooked leaves to the cold water using a slotted spoon. 

If using tomato sauce, spoon a little sauce in the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish.  Place any small or broken cabbage leaves in the bottom of the pan. 

Working one at a time, remove a cabbage leaf from the cold water and pat it dry with a dish towel.  Place the leaf stem side up on a flat work surface and, using a sharp knife held parallel to the work surface, cut away the stem so that it is flush with the rest of the leaf – you don’t want to leave a hole.  Turn the leaf so that the stem is facing you.  Place a heaping spoonful of filling about 2 inches from the bottom of the leaf.  The amount of filling will vary depending on the size of the leaves – you’ll get a sense for this as you go along.  Roll stem side of the leaf over the filling and fold in the sides.  Continue rolling to create a neat little package.  Transfer to the baking dish and repeat with the remaining leaves. 

If using tomato sauce, spoon a little over the tops of the dolmas.  If using butter, dot the dolmas with butter, pour ¼ cup water in the bottom of the pan, and season with a little salt and pepper.  Cover with tin foil and bake 45 minutes to 1 hour until hot and bubbly.  The dolmas can also be refrigerated before baking for up to 48 hours. 

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