vegetarian stuffed grape leaves | prakhe't soma

Making Prakhe / Dolma

Last weekend, I made a small pot of prakhe (stuffed grape leaves) with my mom. Growing up, she would help her mother and grandmother make prakhe almost every weekend, and she's helped them make it many times since then. They started her with the easiest job, separating the grape leaves and draping them over the side of the bowl while they worked. And once she was allowed to stuff and roll the grape leaves, she was only allowed to put her amateur rolls in the big family pot, instead of the special pots for her uncles (although she would sneak her rolls into the special pots when her grandmother wasn't looking). She's certainly paid her dues, and so last weekend was her first time being the head cook.

Making Prakhe / Dolma

While my family calls this dish prakhe, it's also known as yaprukh, warak dawali, warak enab, and many other names in other languages. And in most languages, including our own, "dolma" is a general category of stuffed leaves or stuffed vegetables, and not a particular dish. In Assyrian, we call the grape leaf versions of dolma "dolma't prakhe" or "prakhe" for short, and when the dolma is vegetarian, we call it "soma," because it's suitable for fasting.

So saying you like "dolma" is a little like saying you like dumplings—what kind of dumplings? In this case, what kind of dolma? Vegetarian or beef? Stuffed mixed vegetables, grape leaves, cabbage leaves, or cored apples? Spicy? Plain? Lemony? Herby? With raisins? Furthermore, from what region? Greek? Palestinian? Iraqi? Syrian? Lebanese? Serbian? Within these regions (and many more), the dish can vary from family to family, so even coming up with regional categories doesn't narrow it down enough. There's a whole world of dolma out there, and my family's prakhe't soma is my favorite.

Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma

This recipe for prakhe is in some ways very traditional and in some ways a little untraditional. To develop the recipe, I've used fresh grape leaves, which my mom and I foraged. If you have a reliably safe source of grape leaves, you can use them here, but otherwise, the kind that come from a jar will work too. If you're using the kind from a jar, you just need to make sure you rinse them first and use a little less salt, lemon juice, and oil in the recipe (taste a grape leaf to determine how you want to adjust the seasoning).

The filling is made with very traditional ingredients, although the addition of salsa might seem surprising. The thing is, all of the ingredients in salsa would otherwise go into the filling separately; but when you use prepared salsa, the garlic, spicy peppers, and tomato are already together in one delicious, convenient package, and it's nice to save a step in a recipe that is already very time-consuming, without sacrificing any quality. But if the idea of using something that isn't a "from scratch" ingredient irks you, feel free to make your own salsa out of stewed tomatoes, hot peppers, cilantro, citrus, garlic, and onion.

Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma

The most time consuming thing about this recipe is the rolling, but like many traditional dishes that involve a lot of rolling and stuffing (e.g., tamales, pasteles, joong/zongzi, etc.), it's best to get your whole family involved. If you're working with more than two people, you can circle a round table with the pot in the center and grape leaves and bowls of stuffing divided. Or you can start an assembly line, where the least experienced cooks separate the grape leaves and dole out the stuffing, and the more experienced cooks roll them and put them in the pot. Many hands make light work and you can quickly accomplish a double or triple batch if you pool your efforts. Put your phone away and just spend some time together cooking and talking.

Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma

prakhe't soma | vegetarian stuffed grape leaves

yield: about 75 small rolls
active time: 1 1/2 hours
total time: 3 hours
for more dolma recipes, visit the
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the filling

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 pound mushrooms, diced

  • 3/4 cup diced onion (1 small onion)

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt *

  • 1 cup minced parsley

  • 3/4 cup minced cilantro

  • 1/2 cup minced dill

  • 1/2 cup minced green onions

  • 1 cup uncooked medium grain rice, rinsed (for example, Calrose rice)

  • 1 1/4 cups spicy salsa **

  • 1/2 cup very finely chopped walnuts

  • 2 tablespoons cooled, melted unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

  1. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes. Add the olive oil, mushrooms, onion, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and stir. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the liquid has run from the mushrooms and evaporated, the onions have softened, and the mushrooms have shrunk significantly. Remove from heat.

  2. Combine the parsley, cilantro, dill, green onions, medium grain rice, salsa, walnuts, melted butter/oil, and the other 1/2 teaspoon salt. Once it's slightly cooled, add the mushroom/onion mixture and stir to combine.

wrapping and cooking

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 1 peeled russet potato, in 1/4 inch slices

  • About 100 medium grape leaves ***

  • 1 1/4 cups boiling water

  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/2 cup lemon juice

  1. Coat the bottom of a 4-quart enameled dutch oven or stockpot with the olive oil, and then line it with the potatoes. (You may have a couple slices left over, depending on the width of your pot and size of your potato. Only make 1 layer).

  2. Drape some of the grape leaves on the edge of the stuffing bowl, to get them ready to wrap.

  3. Place a grape leaf flat on a cutting board, with the stem end pointing toward you, and the veiny side of the leaf facing up.

  4. Roll the dolma like very small burritos (see the video above). Spoon about 1 tablespoon of filling near the stem of the grape leaf and roughly shape it into a sideways log, leaving a border around the sides. Wrap the stem-side up to cover about half of the filling, then fold the sides of the leaf in toward the center. Keeping the sides tucked in, roll the grape leaf away from you, putting a little pressure on it so that you end up with a snugly packed roll. The roll should be somewhat soft, but a little firm. It shouldn't feel like it's about to burst, but it should be fairly tightly packed.

  5. Repeat with the remaining grape leaves and stuffing.

  6. While you work, layer them over the potato slices, alternating the direction of the rolls whenever you start a new level.

  7. Layer any remaining grape leaves over the top of the dolma (you should have about 25 left over, if you started with 100). Also feel free to add any clean leftover herb stems to the top of the grape leaves.

  8. Add the 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and butter/oil to the boiling water and slowly pour over the grape leaves.

  9. Take a ceramic heat-resistant plate and invert it over the dolma, gently pressing down to work out big air bubbles. It's ok if there is a gap between the plate and the sides of the pot.

  10. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring the pot to a simmer. Once it is simmering, immediately reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and continue to simmer for 20 minutes. Keep an ear out to make sure the prakhe isn't too dry. You should always hear water bubbling. If the bubbling suddenly stops, add 1/4 cup more water.

  11. At the end of 20 minutes, add the lemon juice, cover, and continue to simmer for 25 minutes.

  12. Once the 25 minutes have passed, keep the pot covered, remove from heat, and let it rest for at least 15 minutes.

  13. Once you're ready to serve, either carefully invert the pot onto a plate (if you dare! For this, it's best to wait another 15 minutes) or serve it straight from the pot. If you're serving the prakhe to guests, remove the potatoes after inverting and save them for yourself for later. ****

* If you're using table salt or fine sea salt, use less than the recipe calls for. Kosher salt is coarser and less compact.
** Any tomato-based spicy salsa will do, except for fresh salsas like pico de gallo.
*** If you're using fresh grape leaves, this recipe will work just right. If you're using store-bought pickled grape leaves from a jar, hold back a little on the lemon and salt and be sure to rinse and dry them. If you're using frozen, make sure they're thawed ahead of time. If the grape leaves you've picked are on the small side, you'll need more of them. In this case, layer one more on top of the other, with the stems staggered about an inch apart, to form one long grape leaf. But if they're all medium, try to use the larger ones for stuffing, and the smaller ones to layer over the top. Make sure you prepare fresh grape leaves ahead of time.
*** The potatoes taste really good, although they look extremely ugly. They're just there to keep the delicate grape leaves on the bottom from scorching. They're a treat for the chef, not for the guests.

Making Prakhe / Dolma

chicken biryani

I know that these days everyone is looking for the next thirty-minute meal, but every once in a while (with Mother's Day right around the corner, hint hint!), it's nice to have a genuine showstopper up your sleeve. I won't lie, biryani isn't easy, but it gives back every ounce of work you put into it, with several layers of perfectly seasoned steamed rice, veggies, and lots more good stuff. [edit: for an even easier version, try my weeknight biryani]

Last month, my cousin Maryam generously taught me how she makes her fabulous biryani. Maryam's Assyrian-Armenian family has roots in Iran and Iraq, so their cuisine includes Persian and Iraqi dishes like biryani. And because biryani is the kind of thing that everyone makes very differently (not just from region to region, but from family to family, and even from person to person), Maryam taught me about her own personal philosophy of biryani and her own particular cooking techniques. The key to Maryam's biryani is layering.

biryani

First, you should carefully season each layer as you go. Everything in this dish becomes super flavorful because of the time you take seasoning every single element. Instead of just dusting everything in spices right before serving, the spices temper in the oil and infuse everything with really deep, intense flavors. You should taste things as you cook, and then taste them before you assemble everything to adjust the seasonings to your own preference. This advice is helpful for most cooking, but it's especially important with biryani. By doing this, every single bite ends up perfectly seasoned.

spices
biryani

In addition to building layers of flavors while you cook, you'll also use different cooking techniques on each layer of ingredients, so that each ingredient is done to perfection. Separating out the layers certainly gives the biryani a stunning appearance (just look at those layers!), but it also allows you to give each ingredient the attention it needs to become its best self.

For instance, a potato cooks entirely differently than an onion, and if you mix too many of them together at once they'll turn into a mushy mess (which would be great in another context! Like making oniony mashed potatoes). So instead of just dumping and stirring, you'll fry the potatoes in oil until they're crispy, slightly caramelize the onions until they're golden, cook the peas just a little until they dimple, steam the rice to perfection, brown the meat to add even more flavor, and baste the almonds and raisins in butter until they're golden brown and delicious. And then everything magically comes together in perfect harmony right before serving.

biryani
biryani
biryani

chicken Biryani

Yield: approximately 12 servings *
For an easier version, try my
weeknight biryani
For a vegan version, try my
vegan biryani

1 1/2 teaspoons allspice
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon yellow curry powder
Salt to taste
About 3/4 cup cooking olive oil (divided; most of the oil is just for pan frying and will not end up in the dish)
2 small onions, thinly sliced (2 cups sliced)
3 cups basmati rice
2 russet potatoes (1 pound 2 ounces), sliced into thin half-moon slices
4 1/2 cup water (plus more for soaking and rinsing the rice)
1/2 stick unsalted butter (4 tablespoons)
2 1/4 cup frozen peas (12 ounces)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 cup slivered almonds
3/4 cup black raisins
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken (3 small breasts and 3 thighs, or another combination), cut into small chunks **

Serving suggestion: Biryani makes a complete dinner, and it's certainly special enough to serve on its own without much else at the table. But if you want a little extra something, any yogurt-based sauce would go great on the side, such as tzatziki or raita, which adds a little more moisture to biryani's crunchiness.

  • Combine the allspice, paprika, cayenne pepper, and curry powder. You will use this spice mixture, along with salt, to season each element of the dish as you cook, to your own particular preference. ***

  • Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat for a minute or two. Add 1 tablespoon of oil and add the onions. Season with salt and spices to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 10 to 15 minutes, until the onions are a soft and a little golden-brown. Set aside on a plate (keep all components separate until the last minute).

  • Add 1/2 cup of oil to the pan, turn the heat up to medium-high, and let it heat for about a minute.

  • While the oil is heating, submerge the rice in a few inches of water, and then let it soak for about 30 minutes while you cook the potatoes.

  • Working in about 3 to 4 batches, add some of the potato slices to the pan of oil, so that they cover the bottom of the pan without overlapping. Fry them for about 4 minutes per side and season them with salt and spices as they fry. Once they're crispy and golden-brown, remove them with a slotted spoon and cool on paper towels. Remove the sauté pan from heat while you work on the rice.

  • Rinse the rice until the water runs clear.

  • Add the 4 1/2 cups water and 1/2 stick of butter to a stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Once it comes to a boil, add the rice and season with 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, and spices to taste. Stir to combine and then do not stir again. Boil, uncovered, for about 6 minutes. Once you can tilt the pot to the side without the water pooling around the side of the pan, cover, reduce the heat to low, and continue to steam the rice for 9 more minutes. After 9 minutes, turn the heat off, do not uncover or stir, and let it sit until you're ready to assemble the dish.

  • Remove most of the oil from the sauté pan (optionally, set aside a few tablespoons to drizzle over the rice), leaving about 2 teaspoons in the pan, and turn the heat to medium. Add the peas and simply season them with salt while you cook them for about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, just until heated through and slightly dimpled. Set aside in a bowl.

  • Add the 1 tablespoon of butter to the sauté pan. Add the almonds and cook for about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring constantly they are golden brown. Add the raisins in the last minute of cooking. Set aside.

  • Add 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan and increase the heat to medium-high. Add the chicken and sauté for about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it is cooked through and golden brown. Season with the spices and salt as it cooks and add any chicken drippings (and, optionally, the couple tablespoons of oil you previously set aside) to the cooked rice.

  • Fluff the rice with a fork, and taste each component, adjusting the seasoning as necessary.

  • Spoon the rice over a very large serving dish. Top with onions, chicken, potatoes, peas, almonds, and raisins (in that order).

  • Serve at this temperature, or move to a 250° oven for about 25 minutes to heat all the way through.

* This recipe is easily halved. If you reduce the recipe, you should add a few extra tablespoons of water to the rice. I like to make the full amount because the left overs hold up very well in the refrigerator or freezer.
** You can easily substitute your favorite meat (beef, pork, lamb, etc.) or meat-substitute. If you're using a delicate vegetarian substitute like chickpeas or tofu, you should coat them in a thin layer of oil, season them with salt and some of the spice mix, and roast at 425° F until lightly browned and crispy, instead of sautéing. Other good vegetarian substitutes are quorn or seitan, which can be sautéed just like meat.
*** You might end up using the whole amount of spice mix, or you might only use half. If you have any left over, you can serve it next to the dish at the table. I use all but one or two teaspoons.