combination dolma | dolma khuitah

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For the filling:

  • 2 1/2 pounds lean meat (sirloin, round, etc.), slightly frozen for about 20 to 30 minutes
  • 2 1/2 cups uncooked medium grain rice (e.g., Calrose)
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 16 ounces spicy salsa *
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped parsley
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped cilantro
  • 2 cups chopped dill
  • 1 cup chopped green onion
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted

To prep and stuff the shells:

  • 1 large head green cabbage
  • the biggest yellow onion you can find (about 1 pound)
  • 4 large cubanelle or poblano peppers**
  • 10 mini sweet peppers
  • zucchini corer
  • 4 medium 6 to 8-inch Italian zucchini
  • about 25 to 50 grape leaves ***
  • it doesn’t hurt to gather a bunch of friends and family who are willing to help stuff

To assemble the pot:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 1/4 cup vegetable juice****
  • 1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • One 5-ounce potato, sliced into 1/8-inch rounds
  • (optional) up to 1 pound lamb chops or meat scraps


  1. Make the filling: Soak the uncooked rice in cold water for about 5 minutes, and then rinse it.
  2. Trim the meat of any fat and gristle. You should be left with about 2 pounds 2 ounces meat. Set aside the scraps for the bottom of the pot, or discard them. Finely chop the 2 pounds 2 ounces of meat (no piece should be bigger than 1/4-inch).
  3. Mix the meat in a large mixing bowl with the medium grain rice, garlic, salsa, parsley, cilantro, dill, green onion, salt, pepper, and butter.
  4. Prep and stuff the shells: Bring a stockpot of water to a boil. Cut the cabbage in half from root to stem. Use a paring knife to carefully remove the core (the part that holds everything together). Place the cabbage in the water, reduce heat to simmer, and let it cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, just until the leaves are soft enough to bend easily without snapping (don’t worry if the ribs are not very flexible). As the large leaves soften and fall away, remove them from the water and let them cool on a plate, and eventually remove the whole thing from the water once it’s soft enough (but don’t dump out the boiling water).
  5. Peel the onion and then cut just the fuzzy root off. Rest the onion on the table with the root-side facing down, place the tip of a paring knife at the top of the onion, and cut down just on one side. Place the onion in the boiling water for about 10 minutes. During the 10 minutes, remove the outer onion layers from the water as they soften and fall away from the onion. Once the onion layers are soft, remove them to a plate to cool.
  6. Cut the tops off the cubanelles/poblanos and sweet peppers and use a zucchini corer or boning/paring knife to cut away as much of the pith and seeds as possible.
  7. Cut the stems and ends off the zucchinis, partly peel them (see photos), and cut them in half the short way. Use a zucchini corer to hollow out the insides, leaving one end closed. Their sides should be very thin, about as thick as the sides of the peppers. Optionally, stab them three or four times with the end of a paring knife.
  8. If you’re using fresh grape leaves, submerge them in boiling water off the heat, place an upside-down heat-proof plate on top of them to keep them submerged, and steep them for about 25 minutes (find more specific grape leaf instructions here). If you’re using preserved grape leaves from a jar, rinse them well with water.
  9. Finish prepping the cabbage by shaving down the ribs. Place a cabbage leaf flat on a cutting board, so that the bumpy part of the rib is showing. Carefully hold a sharp knife flat against the cabbage leaf, and cut across (away from your hand!) to remove the bumpy part of the rib. This will make the leaves more flexible. Save the rib scraps for the next section.
  10. Call everyone over to help, and stuff the veggies, starting with the onion, cubanelles/poblanos, sweet peppers, and zucchini. Then stuff grape leaves and cabbage leaves until you run out of stuffing (but save the extra cabbage and grape leaves for the next section). Here are more specifics: To stuff the peppers and zucchini, use a little spoon to scoop filling into the openings, and make sure there are no big gaps (but don’t tamp them down firmly—there needs to be a little breathing room). To fill the grape leaves, place the leaf with the veiny side facing up and the stem-end facing you. Place some stuffing in a sideways log near the stem, fold the two sides over, fold the bottom up, and roll it shut (watch the above video, and visit my stuffed grape leaf post for more photos and details). Fill the cabbage leaves and onions similarly (but these are a little more free-form, since they’re not all the same shape).
  11. To assemble the pot: Combine the butter, vegetable juice, and lemon juice in a small saucepan, and heat over medium until the butter melts and the liquid is warm.
  12. While the liquid heats, put together the pot. Lightly coat the bottom of a very large dutch oven (or two smaller dutch ovens) with olive oil. Arrange the slices in one layer on the bottom of the pot, followed by an even layer of lamb chops and/or meat scraps (it’s ok if some of the lamb is touching the bottom of the pot). Nest everything together tetris-style, leaving very little space between the rolls and veggies. Here’s how I like to do it: I put the zucchini in a ring around the first layer, then I fill in gaps between them with little grape leaves. Then I put the peppers in the center, and put grape leaves and cabbage leaves in the gaps between them, and in a couple rows at the edge of the pot around them. Then I do a layer of sweet peppers and onions, and fill in the gaps with more cabbage leaves and grape leaves, and make another border with the stuffed leaves. Make sure you leave at least 1 1/2 inches of space at the top of the pot, to make sure it doesn’t boil over. *****
  13. Pour the liquid evenly over the dolma. The liquid should come up just to the top of the second-highest layer (just to the base of the very top layer).
  14. After you pour in the liquid, put any extra grape and cabbage leaves and ribs on top of the pot.
  15. Place a heavy heat-proof plate face-down over the center of the dolma. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, and keep an eye on it while it heats. Once it reaches a gentle boil (a few big bubbles breaking the surface, but not a rapid boil), cover the pot (leave the plate in place, and cover the pot with a lid) and reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a gentle boil.
  16. Cook this way for about 1 hour. Check on it intermittently to make sure it’s at a gentle boil, and adjust the heat as necessary. Don’t open the lid too often, or the top layer won’t cook through enough. The liquid will rise as the veggies cook down, give off their juices, and settle in. To test whether the dolma are done, take a piece from the top layer, cut it in half, and see if the rice is cooked. Once it’s done, keep the lid on and let it rest for about 30 minutes, undisturbed.
  17. Feel free to serve right out of the pot, or invert it for a real show stopper (see my tips above). Once it’s inverted, shake it out into an even layer, and have everyone dig in.


* This is the way my family has been making dolma since we immigrated to the US in the 1970s. Before this, we would make a sauce that happened to have pretty much the same ingredients as salsa roja, so this is a great way to save time without sacrificing quality.

** If you’re using poblanos, you might end up with a few extremely spicy ones, in which case you may want to buy mild salsa for the filling instead of spicy. Or just go with it if you like a lot of heat! You can use any similarly shaped peppers here—they just need to be long and narrow, and not too-too-spicy.

*** If you don’t have grape leaves, you can substitute more cabbage leaves. We do this when they’re not in season and we’ve run out of frozen ones.

**** We use V8 brand vegetable juice, which has a decent amount of sodium, but if you use a low-sodium one, or if you juice your own vegetables, you will need to add quite a bit of salt, to taste. You can use tomato juice instead, but vegetable juice has a lot more flavor.

***** If you run out of space, get a small saucepan and layer the additional rolls in it, and save some of the liquid for it. Also, if you don’t nest everything together closely, you will need to use a lot more liquid, and then you will end up with water-logged dolma. It’s really important to try to fit them together like puzzle pieces, but without mashing them down and tightly packing them in, otherwise it won’t turn out right.

Make ahead: If you’d like to make this ahead, you can prep and stuff everything, and leave it in a pot in the refrigerator overnight (don’t add the liquid yet). When you’re ready to cook it, bring the liquid to a simmer, pour over the dolma, and cook as usual. It might take a few extra minutes to come to (and stay at) a simmer, since it’s starting out colder.