Stuffed Kale Rolls (Dolma)

Thursday, July 12, 2012


I've yet to meet a person who hasn't had dolma in one form or another. And perhaps you've had it too, without even knowing it. While one of the more well known types of dolma is the stuffed grape leaf, the name itself can mean any stuffed leaf or vegetable. Dolma is a derivative of a Turkish word dolmak which means to fill (and also, to be full). Stuffed peppers, stuffed eggplant, stuffed tomatoes, stuffed cabbage leaves, among others, can all be classified under this name.

Turkish food and I, we go way back as it turns out. My husband and I once knew this incredibly smart, brilliant man. As sometimes is common with these types, the part of the mind responsible for understanding (or perhaps developing) the string theory, overtakes the part responsible for social interactions. They stoop from always looking at the ground, their eye never meets yours. Interactions with others may seem daunting, mentally exhausting and invariably awkward. Introverted, they spew strange bits of obscure knowledge and have at times almost obsessive fixations. His happened to be where people are from. Whenever he would introduce someone he knew, an inevitable accompaniment was "He is from South Korea!" or, in my case, "She is from the Ukraine!" The peculiar excitement of the pronouncement made it seem as if it were either a great accomplishment or a freakish attribute. And ever since he found out I was Ukrainian (the day I shall always regret) he thought that, for some reason, I must be an expert on Turkish food.


This boggled me. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, Turkey is technically part of the Middle East, although it has been a potential EU candidate. Different histories and alliances, different languages and cultures. Why Turkey? Then I looked at a map more closely and I saw the answer. Turkey is right below Ukraine, the only thing separating the two is the Black Sea. I pulled a map of the Ottoman Empire: the southern part of what is now Ukraine was on the fringes of the empire, which enveloped modern-day Turkey. So while my average mind couldn't think past beyond 1917, his saw the connection between the countries immediately.

Ever inquisitive and stating that the Greeks (incidentally also once part of the empire) have an almost identical dish, he wondered if there was a dish similar in Ukraine. But the closest dolma type-dish I knew about was stuffed cabbage leaves, which are typically filled with ground meat and rice and cooked in a similar way.


What does this strange history lesson have to do with kale rolls? I borrow frequently from different cuisines, which is sometimes manifested in interesting combinations. When an idea for this dish first came to mind as a derivative of stuffed cabbage leaves, I couldn't help but also be reminded of the grape leaf dish (and therefore also of the conversation).


Since cabbage leaves are thick and frankly, cooked cabbage is rather stinky, I used kale. Kale is in the cabbage family, but its leaves are milder than cabbage, and more pliable. In this recipe I use dinosaur or lacinato kale, whose leaves are more amenable to being wrapped than curly kale. To prepare the leaves for wrapping, cut away about 1/3 of the bottom leaf, discarding the part right below where the leaf starts to expand. Blanch the leaves for about 3-4 minutes in simmering water to soften them, so that they can be wrapped with ease. 


Remove the thickest part of the stem, about two to three inches, as otherwise the leaf will not bend easily.


Then place the leaf veined side down, smooth side up. Dollop a heaping tablespoon of the filling (here brown rice, mushrooms and a few other good tidbits). Take the bottom edge and fold over the filling. Then take one side's edge and fold it. The other side will remain open. Simply roll the kale into a tight wrap and place on a serving platter, the top part of the leaf on the bottom. Serve them as they are, warm or chilled (and vegan), or with a yogurt sauce, the recipe for which follows below.


In a way this recipe is perhaps the missing link between the different dolmas of Turkey and Ukraine. It is kind of like the stuffed grape leaves, and it is sort of like the stuffed cabbage leaves, but can also be described as sui generis, meaning of its own kind. Its own kind of good.


Stuffed Kale Rolls
(Makes 25)

You will need:
2 cups (474 ml) water
1 cup (237 ml) brown rice
1/2 cup (75 g) red onion, finely chopped
8 oz (227 g) white button mushrooms, finely chopped
1 tomato, chopped
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
1 tbsp chives, chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil, divided
salt and pepper to taste
25 lacinato (dinosaur) kale leaves
1. Bring water to a boil in a medium pot. Add the rice and a pinch of salt. Bring back to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook the rice 40-45 minutes until the water has evaporated. Remove from heat and let stand 5 minutes more. Fluff with a wooden spoon, and let cool slightly.
2. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a pan, add the onion and cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, until softened and fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté on medium heat, until cooked through and the water the mushrooms give off has evaporated, about 8 minutes more. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
3. To prepare the filling, in a large bowl, combine cooked rice, mushroom mixture, tomato, parsley, chives, lemon juice, and the remaining 1 tbsp olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and set aside.
4. To prepare the kale, wash thoroughly and pat dry. Cut off about 1/3 from the bottom, right before the leaf begins to expand. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the leaves and blanch until softened and flexible, about 3 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water and pat dry. Make an incision in the shape of a long triangle to remove about 2-3 inches (5-7.5 cm) of the thick middle stem from each leaf.
5. To make the rolls, place the leaf veined side down, and put a heaping tablespoon of the filling in the middle. Fold the leaf from the bottom over the filling. Tuck one side of the leaf over (the other side will remain open). Roll the leaf into a tight roll, and press slightly to seal the top of the leaf to the roll. Place on a serving platter, with the top of the leaf tucked down. Repeat with remaining rolls. Serve warm or chilled.

Yogurt Dipping Sauce
(Makes 1/2 cup)

You will need:
1/2 cup (118 ml) Greek yogurt
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tbsp chives
salt and pepper to taste

Combine yogurt with garlic and chives. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve or refrigerate until needed.


  1. Ah yes, I am familiar with dolma. :-)

    In Bosnia, for e.g., "sogan-dolma" is one of the country's most popular dishes (, which isn't surprising given they were under the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years.

    We Serbs also have "sarma", i.e. the stuffed cabbage leaves filled with ground meat and rice that you also referred to. (Then again, sarma is huge across all the fmr Yugoslav territory.) My mama makes the most amazing, perfect sarma. I'm drooling now just thinking about it, heh heh.

    Thank you for this beautiful post; for the history, the lovely and eloquent writing, the anecdote, and the great recipe.


  2. Kale is new for me and I'm loving seeing all the recipes and creative ways to use it. This is a great one!

  3. I've never been very impressed by traditional grape leaf dolma--but this is definitely a stuffed leaf I can get behind! Kale makes complete sense in place of cabbage, and the mushroom-herb-rice filling sounds wonderful. I especially want to get my hands on some of that garlicky yogurt. :)

  4. I'm from Serbia and we eat a lot of Turkish food since we've been under their rule for 500 years in history :)

    I do love to make kale rolls, I usually stuff them with rice and shrooms, pour over some tomato juice with garlic and celery leaves and bake in the oven for 20 minutes or so. You can do that with chard too!

  5. I've eaten and made dolma in alot of different forms too... but yours is different again, love how there are so many versions!

    Great recipe!

  6. Hello I'm from Turkiye (a.k.a Turkey ;)) and actually we make dolma or sarma with kale too. But our kale is a little bit different and theese kale dolma is a traditional meal from blacksea region. You Blacksea people love kale ha? ;) love Ecehan

  7. Ecehan, I didn't know kale dolma was traditional to the Black Sea region. Thanks for the info!



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