Dolma (Ottoman Turkish: طوٓلمه) is a family of stuffed dishes common in Mediterranean cuisine and surrounding regions including the Balkans, the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Stuffed with lamb and rice grape leaves is one of the version. I was never impressed by what is sold or served as dolma in the U.S. Most of the time it is dry and tasteless. As a result, I never attempted to make it at home, thinking it’s not my thing. That was until some of my friends bragged about their homemade dolma with fresh grape leaves. The recipe below is my first try and I consider it very much up to my taste!
This recipe is an adaptation of southern Turkish style kebab, prepared in the oven. Eggplants are cooked twice — either grilled or fried first, and then baked with meat in a tomato and pepper sauce — to concentrate flavor. My version of Patlican Kebabi doesn’t look the same as Turkish, but the idea of vertical rolls allows to use large Italian eggplants we mostly have available in Central Texas.
How authentic is this shashlyk? Well, let’s see. Instead of traditional mangal, I use shichirin and instead of grapevine — binchotan charcoals from Japan. While true Georgian shashlik is made of non-aged lamb, I choose conditioned lamb from New Zeland. Finally, the marinade is based on local herbs, vegetables, and spices. I couldn’t even find a good substitute for young Georgian wine and decided to use sake for its cleaner taste.
I prefer slowly cooked beef shanks for plain khashlama and leg of lamb for festive version. A slow cooker/crock pot is the most convenient device to make this dish. Otherwise, assemble vegetables and meat layers in an iron pot, start on the stove to bring water to boiling and finish in the 300F oven by slowly cooking for another 3-4 hours. There is also a version when meat is cooked first; then it is layered with vegetables in small ceramic or clay pots and cooked in the oven to serve khashlama individually portioned. In this case, it only takes 1-1.5 hours in the oven — just to cook vegetables.
The recipe below is a modified version of Chakapuli (Georgian: ჩაქაფული), a Georgian stew made with onions, lamb neck, unripe cherry plums (tkemali), fresh herbs (parsley, mint, dill, cilantro, tarragon), garlic and salt. It is considered to be one of the most popular dishes in Georgia.
Choosing the right lamb cut for the dish is crucial. This dish is cooked low and slow to make sure all flavors are developed. Lean lamb will become tough and dry at the end of the process. We need something with bones and connective tissues. The best cuts, in this case, are the leg and the neck of lamb. The neck is often sold as a cross cut steak and makes this dish very flavorful. This recipe doesn’t use any additional liquid. The meat is cooked in its own juices.