Stuffed vegetables (dolmasy in Azeri, dolma in Armenian, tolma in Georgian, yaprach salat in Kurdish) make great appetizers and also are very good additions to a feast. Make them up to three hours ahead. The filling makes 3-1/2 to 4 cups; multiply it for larger batches. Make it at least two hours and up to a day ahead of when you wish to serve the dolmas. If you are using tomatoes as one of your container vegetables, add 2 tablespoons of the reserved tomato pulp to the meat mixture and omit the tomato paste.
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1 lb ground lamb or chicken
1 cup minced onion
1½ tsps ground cumin
1 tbsp tomato paste (see headnote)
Pinch of turmeric
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp sunflower or extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup cooked short- or medium-grain rice
½ cup chopped fresh mint, basil, tarragon or flat-leaf parsley
4 or 5 bell peppers or 10 large tomatoes, or about 20 small eggplants or 25 small zucchini, or a combination
Salt, if using eggplants
1. To make the filling, place the lamb or chicken, onion, cumin, tomato paste (or tomato pulp), turmeric and salt in a food processor and process to a smooth paste.
2. Place a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and the meat mixture and cook, stirring frequently, until the meat has changed colour, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the rice and fresh herbs. Remove from the heat and set the mixture aside until you are ready to use it (in a sealed container in the refrigerator if the wait will be longer than an hour).
3. Meanwhile, prepare your vegetables.
For bell peppers: Cut off the tops and save to use as lids. Strip out and discard the seeds and membranes. Drop the peppers into boiling water for just 30 seconds to blanch them; drain.
For tomatoes: Choose firm large tomatoes. Cut off the tops and set aside to use as lids. Scoop out the flesh and stir 2 tbsps of it into the meat filling.
For eggplants: Choose small ones. Cut off the stems and make a slit down one side of each one, cutting deeply but not all the way through the eggplant.
If using Mediterranean eggplants, rub salt inside the slits and set aside for 30 minutes, then rinse well. Drop the eggplants into a pot of boiling water and blanch for about 3 minutes. Drain.
For zucchini: Choose firm, small zucchini that are 4 to 6 inches long. Cut a slit in one side of each one.
4. Allow about 1 cup filling a pepper, 1/4 to 1/2 cup filling a tomato, about 2 tbsps filling a small eggplant, or 1 to 2 tbsps a small zucchini. Fill the vegetables to the top with the filling. Place the “lids” on the peppers and tomatoes. Place the vegetables in a deep skillet or a wide heavy pot. If you’re making a lot, you’ll need two pots. Stand the tomatoes and peppers upright and place the zucchini and eggplants on their sides, slit side up. The vegetables should fit in snugly so they support each other and stay upright.
5. Add hot water to the pan until it is 1/4 inch deep if cooking zucchini, and almost 1/2 inch deep for other vegetables. Cover tightly and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes for tomatoes and zucchini, 30 to 40 minutes for eggplants and peppers, until tender.
I like to serve these at room temperature when the textures have firmed up, so the vegetables are easier to eat, but you can also serve them hot.
Excerpted from Taste of Persia (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2016.