Ink on my Apron: More is more
In the spirit of all things moreish, here’s a roundup of some of the most-loved stuffed vegetable dishes in avatars you wouldn’t initially think were conceivable.
How much is too much of a good thing? I’ve always wondered what it is about us human beings that makes it so hard to leave a formula tried, tested and successful - to the world at large – alone. It’s what made throngs line up outside the Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York’s Soho neighbourhood in 2013, eager to get a bite of what seemed like the then mythical cronut, which allegedly married the best facets of a croissant and doughnut. It’s what made quirky mashups like fruit sushi and molten chocolate samosas creep their way on to dessert menus and has us jumping aboard any faddish bandwagon, really, that panders to the belief that more is more.
This sentiment seems to be one that particularly plagues us, unapologetic cavemen. As though it weren’t enough that we got our protein fix in numerous unadulterated ways ranging from rib-eye steak to shish kebabs, our quest to lend vegetables a pseudo protein heft seems to be never-ending. We look for ways in which to trick our minds and stomachs into believing that they’ve received the satisfying lift we naively believe meat alone can deliver.
In the spirit of all things moreish, here’s a roundup of some of the most-loved stuffed vegetable dishes in avatars you wouldn’t initially think were conceivable:
The leaves of the grapevine plant feature as the stellar filling-worthy base of several cuisines including Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Greece. Picked fresh from the vine, these are stuffed with a mixture of rice, ground meat and delicate aromatics before being immersed into a deep-bottomed vessel and boiled or steamed. These can be served as appetisers or mains, hot or cold, and are known by names such as Dolmades in Greece, Warak Enab in Lebanon, and Yabrak in Syria.
In many cultures the art of delicately rolling these leaves is often regarded as a communal and celebratory activity that sees women gathering to prepare industrial-sized vats for their families. Different countries also add their own riffs. In Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Bulgaria, for example, these grape leaves may be served with mashed potatoes and yoghurt.
Hollowed out peppers seem like an almost natural choice that urge cooks into thinking of creative means by which to fill them. A mainstay of several southeastern European cuisines, the peppers are filled with a mixture of minced meat, rice and spices that are cooked down in a rustic tomato sauce. An unusual touch is also added in the way of a raw egg being added to the cooled stuffing, in countries such as Bulgaria after which the peppers are boiled or steamed in a pan. This dish goes by names such as Punjena Paprika in Serbo-Croatian, Polnjena Paprika in Slovenian, Palnena Chushka in Bulgarian and Polneti Piperki in Macedonian.
If there were one vegetable whose natural form did not naturally invite the thought of a filling, it would probably be an onion. However, Soğandolması or stuffed onions are a traditional delicacy in Bosnia. The skin of the onion is peeled and the larger, outer layers of the bulbs are used as convenient containers or “shirts” (derived from the Turkish word “dolama” that alludes to a special Ottoman robe) to house the meat stuffing. Ingredients featured in the mixture include minced beef, rice, tomato puree, paprika, vinegar, and sour cream or strained yoghurt.
Waste not, want not seems to be the adage at play as the remaining part of the onion is mixed with meat and fried for a couple of minutes in order to obtain a handy base. The final “shirts” are boiled slowly over a low flame in broth and the dish is served with thick, creamy yoghurt.
Favoured amongst cuisines of the Balkans; central, northern and eastern Europe; Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran and west and northern China, cabbage rolls seem to be a much-loved crowd pleaser. Cooked cabbage leaves are wrapped around a variety of fillings ranging from meat-centric options seasoned with garlic, onion and spices to those enlisting textural diversity by way of grains such as rice, barley and mushrooms. Southeastern European cuisine often showcases the use of fermented cabbage leaves as a wrapper while Chinese cabbage is used in Asian countries.
The cabbage leaves are stuffed with a filling, which is then baked, simmered or steamed in a covered pot and served warm. Accompaniments are often as interesting with countries such as Sweden and Finland relying on the indigenous sweet and tart lingonberry jam while tomato-based sauces and sour cream are common in Eastern Europe. The Lebanese have mastered the fine art of rolling the stuffed leaves to a delicate cigar size and serve the dish with a dollop of yoghurt and a zesty lemon and olive oil vinaigrette infused with garlic and dried mint. Interestingly, the Jewish pay tribute to the humble stuffed cabbage (referred to as holishkes) on the day of Simchat Torah where it makes a special appearance at most tables.
If you could rely on anyone to find an ingenious way to incorporate seafood into their diets, it would be the Bengalis. Chingri Potoler Dorma is a famous dish where the potol or pointed gourd is stuffed with boiled prawns that have been cooked with a ground mustard seed, poppy seed and green chilli paste. The gourds are subsequently deep fried and reincorporated into a spicy gravy. The dish can be savoured plain or with a mound of rice.
Jehan Nizar is a Lifestyle Features Writer and Food Blogger at inkonmyapron.com.