Dear growers of cabbage, chard, and kale; winter CSA subscribers; healthy eaters; gluten-free-ers; parents who pack lunches; potluckers; vegetarians, meat eaters; locavores; who-cares-avores; carnivores, omnivores with dilemmas; omnivores without dilemmas; people who eat while driving; triathletes who eat while biking; couch potatoes, and anyone else I have not called out who is human and eats:
I have an amazing finger food for you. Dolmas are incredibly delicious edible packets of spiced rice and/or meat that are packable, portable, and extremely healthy. They're so good, they taste bad for you, but they're not. The aspect of this food I find absolutely unbelievable, astonishing, really, is that it gets kids to eat kale.
I brought a platter of dolmas to a party recently. On the suggestion of an Iraqi friend, I'd wrapped them in local kale, chard, and cabbage instead of grape leaves. A pack of kids dismounted the trampoline, ran to the buffet table, offered quizzical looks and some shrugs, and then devoured the dolmas like they were cupcakes. I would not be surprised if in 20 years kale dolmas finally redeemed McDonald's from the entire 20th-century health debacle. They would come in a hot little collection like nuggets, with a yogurt dipping sauce — their first ever with no sugar in it!
What you know of dolmas from the store, tangy cold little green cylinders stuffed in a deli container, is about one one-thousandth of their potential. I'm not exaggerating. The best kind are home-cooked, steaming hot, and served on a platter or big board for family and friends. Grape leaf wrappers are great, but large local edible leaves are phenomenal! So this is what to do with all that winter CSA chard, kale, and cabbage! The fillings are different for every family. One Iraqi friend fills hers with ground beef, rice, cinnamon, nutmeg, paprika, coriander, black lemon, cumin, garlic, onion, and tomato paste. Another Iraqi friend uses Madras curry powder, lemon pepper, turmeric, tomato paste, and salt. My daughter's favorite is the clean, bright, vegetarian version that my Lebanese friend told me about: rice, dried mint, dried dill, and salt. In addition to being wrapped with leaves, dolmas can also be made by stuffing de-cored vessel-like vegetables or fruits like bell peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. All these varieties are cooked the same way: submerged in water with lots of lemon juice and salt, which is the key to the tangy flavor that everybody loves.
The name "dolma" comes from a Turkish verb meaning "to stuff" and it makes sense that a Turkish word would stick even though dolmas are native foods in something like 20 different countries. Indeed, I think the people of the Ottoman Empire, were responsible for spreading the food far and wide during the 600 years they ruled from the Mediterranean Sea, down to North Africa, up through the Balkans, and east to Asia and Russia. This was about the time Christopher Columbus was setting sail. But who was the Nobel-deserving genius who figured out how to make vegetables taste good? I'm guessing a humble home cook living around 1000 BC in what is modern-day Iran. If it wasn't her, it was someone else. Dolmas are kale's destiny. And because 20 years is just too long to wait for you to get them in the drive-thru, you should cook a pot of them this weekend.
Lindsay Sterling wants to be paid a million dollars if McDonald's suddenly decides to put dolmas on the menu. Also, she created it first: "McDolmas," copyright Lindsay Sterling 2011. For more on dolmas, visit ImmigrantKitchens.com.