Classic meat and rice filled dolmas get a huge boost of flavor with herbs and two ingredients I love. They can also easily be made without meat.
Carefully take the grape leaves out of the jar and unfurl them. They tear easily so separate the leaves from each other and transfer them to a bowl. Fill the bowl with water and drain. You can do this twice but it's not necessary to soak the leaves.
You can use the herb mix above which is essentially my gremolata recipe and use this as a base to add to the filling. Just stir everything together and set aside. Alternatively, use just the parsley and stir in with the lemon juice and garlic. A few minutes in the lemon juice will wilt down the herbs and you will need about 3/4 - 1 cup of the wilted mixture.
In a skillet heat two to three tablespoons of olive oil to medium or medium-high heat. Cook the onion for about two minutes until translucent. Add the ground beef and cook, making sure to break apart the large chunk into small pieces. Season with kosher salt, pepper and add the onion powder and garlic powder. Add another tablespoon or two of olive oil if the pan is too dry. Also add the crushed Calabrian chilies (or use sambal oelek). Cook the beef over medium heat for about five minutes or until you begin to see some caramelization in the pan.
Add the uncooked rice and stir into the cooked meat for a minute or two but watch your heat so nothing burns. Lower the heat to medium-low if you have to. Add the 1 1/2 cups chicken stock and two tablespoons lemon juice. Cover and simmer for five minutes.
After five minutes add the 3/4 cup gremolata containing the preserved lemon and garlic. Or you can use your own herb mix but don't forget the preserved lemon, garlic and lemon juice. Stir into the rice/meat mixture and set aside. The rice won't be fully cooked and this is what you want.
Arrange the less-than-perfect or smallest leaves in one slightly overlapping layer on the pan you'll use to cook the dolmas. Depending on the size pan you use, you will need five or six leaves.
Lay one leaf vein side up on a cutting board or plate. Take a teaspoonful of the rice-meat filling and set in the middle of the leave. Wrap the leaf around the filling by taking the bottom outside corners of the leaf first and wrap them over the mixture. Take the sides and fold them into the mixture and roll until you reach the top tip of the leaf. Arrange the dolmas seam side down in the pan and layer them on top of each other.
Once all your dolmas have been wrapped and layered in the pan set an inverted plate (that is safe for cooking) over the dolmas. Add the 3 1/2 cups chicken stock and 3/4 - 1 cup water and more lemon juice if you're using it. You can also add 1/4 cup or more of olive oil but I didn't do this. The goal is to add enough liquid to the pan that will almost cover the dolmas (see my last picture).
Cover the pan with a lid and cook on low or light simmer for 35-40 minutes. This timing is for long-grain rice. If you use short grain or medium rice you might need a few more minutes. Test one dolma to see if the rice has cooked. You should have a small amount of liquid leftover in the pan after this time but if you find your pan dry, add 1/4 cup of liquid at a time and continue to cook.
Transfer the cooked dolmas to a platter and serve. They are also great cold and served with tzatziki. They will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.
Grape Leaves: I recommend Orlando California Grape Leaves. I tried Roland brand and the grape leaves were stringy, too briny and tough.
Lemon Juice: I probably use 1-2 tablespoons more than I listed here for the entire recipe but my Meyer lemons are not as tart as regular lemons. Taste as you go and use more or less than I recommend according to your lemony you want your dolmas.
Herb Mix: The ingredients here essentially make up what I use for my gremolata recipe. Once the herbs are mixed into the lemon juice they wilt down so you should have about 3/4 cup of the mix to add to the partially cooked rice and ground beef.
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