The taste of Kurdistan: Courtesy of bushes in F-M parks
FARGO - Jihan Brifki and Siham Amedy are used to curious stares and plenty of questions when they wander into the bushes of local parks. But they said the gaze of gawkers is worth it when they find what they're searching for - pristine, soft grap...
FARGO - Jihan Brifki and Siham Amedy are used to curious stares and plenty of questions when they wander into the bushes of local parks.
But they said the gaze of gawkers is worth it when they find what they're searching for - pristine, soft grape leaves that make perfect dolma, a stuffed vegetable dish common in their native Kurdistan and throughout the Middle East, Mediterranean and parts of Russia.
Brifki said she could buy the leaves in most supermarkets or international markets around town. But they're preserved in a jar, and the taste is just not right.
"They're not as fresh as these ones," Brifki said as she hunted for the best leaves in Fargo's Oak Grove Park earlier this month, searching for foliage that was not too rough or dry, usually found in the shade.
Brifki, 30, and Amedy, 22, have spent most of their lives in Moorhead, immigrating here in 1992 and 1996. But the longtime friends and co-workers at Sanford Health said they can't find dolma at restaurants here, and they've learned over the years how to make their own so they don't have to miss out on this favorite food.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Amedy said she likes to stock up in the summer, when grape bushes are thriving in parks throughout the community. Once home, she can clean and wash the leaves, stack them in layers and freeze them in plastic bags so she can make dolma anytime she wants throughout the winter.
The food that can be enjoyed year-round with almost any meal or served as an appetizer can be made several different ways, with or without meat.
The mixture of seasoned rice and tomato paste that fills dolma also can be stuffed into hollowed-out tomatoes, zucchini, peppers or onions.
Amedy said she prefers her dolma "spicy and sour," and said she prefers stuffed grape leaves to cabbage or eggplants.
"Everyone has their own tastes," she said.
Brifki, meanwhile, prefers hers meatless and said she likes to make dolma sour, but not too spicy.
But they weren't sure 2013 would be a good year for homemade dolma here.
Amedy said they often bump into other people who hit up the edges of city parks at the start of summer, looking for fresh grape leaves to enjoy. But when there's a flood late in the year, like there was in the late spring, the bushes are often submerged too long to have much of a harvest.
"It stinks when it floods because it takes all the grape leaves," she said.
But Brifki said the bushes survived the Red River, and they were thriving by the midsummer.
She said it's best to use the freshest ingredients possible when making dolma, which is why she tries to grow her own peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini that she can stuff with the rice mixture.
Brifki's been making her own dolma for the past 10 years or so, and said she's gotten pretty good at it. But she admitted it's a dish that can be ruined with a minor mistake, and said it took a while to get it all down.
"The first couple times I failed, and I ended up calling my mom to give me directions," she said.
But Brifki said it just took practice and trying different combinations to see what she liked best. She said she learned early on to be careful not to burn the stuffed veggies, otherwise they'll pick up a bad taste that ruins the dish.
She said preparing the ingredients and then folding the grape leaves takes a couple of hours, and it takes another hour or so to cook. When it's done, the food that she said could be described as similar to eggrolls with veggies are usually healthy - though she said like anything else, there are plenty of ways to make dolma unhealthy if someone wanted.
Brifki said their hunts in the park for grape leaves have earned them plenty of "strange looks" and a never-ending series of questions from curious passers-by. But she said she can't think of anyone who's tried dolma and not liked it, and said it's worth the extra effort.
"It's really good, as long as you make it right," she said.
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Chili peppers (fresh or powdered) to taste
2 cups rice
4 teaspoons tomato paste
1 green pepper
2 tablespoons oil (vegetable, canola or olive)
½ bunch fresh Italian parsley
Garlic to taste
Juice of 1 lemon, or citric acid
½ pound beef, chicken or pork (optional)
Carrots, green beans or other preferred vegetable
Vegetables for stuffing
3 small eggplants
3 medium tomatoes
50 fresh grape leaves
½ head of cabbage
Mince onion, green pepper, garlic, meat (optional) and parsley; set aside. Mix the rice, salt, black pepper, tomato paste, oil and lemon juice, and combine with minced ingredients.
Prepare the vegetables to stuff by placing an onion and cabbage in boiling water until they soften; remove from water. Hollow out the other vegetables, keeping the tops to hold the ingredients in later.
Fill the hollow vegetables about halfway with rice mixture, using the tops or a grape leaf to hold the rice in during cooking. Stuff one layer of onion at a time. For the grape and cabbage leaves, put a spoonful of the rice mixture in the middle and roll up.
Fill the base of a large pot with sliced carrots, green beans or other vegetable of choice to serve as a side with the dolma.
Stack the stuffed vegetables in the pot in layers, fitting them in snugly so they remain upright during cooking.
Fill pot with water about 1 inch above the top layer and cook on high until boiling, about 10-15 minutes. Once boiling, turn burner down to low and cook for about an hour or until rice is cooked.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587