Yaprak Sarma is a Turkish dish of meat wrapped in grape leaves. Sarmak is Turkish for to roll or to wrap, and yaprak means leaf. Sarma are sometimes also called dolma (from dolmak, to fill or to stuff), but strictly speaking that applies to stuffed vegetables.
Recently I’ve been reacquainted with a Turkish classmate from highschool, Hülya. We had not seen one another in about 25 years, and ran into each other at the gym. She kept raving about her mother’s wrapped grape leaves, and when I tasted some leftovers I knew what she meant. I never used to like them since I had only had tasteless versions with just rice as a filling and tough leaves tasting like cardboard, but these were delicious delectable fragrant parcels of tender leaves filled with succulent meat. And so I was thrilled when she arranged for her mother Çiğdem to give me a cooking lesson and share the family’s recipe.
Making sarma is a bit of work, as you have to wrap each leaf individually. But as a family effort the work can be done pretty quickly.
The best is to use fresh grape leaves. They need to be blanched (boiled briefly and then refreshed in ice water) to soften them up before using. After blanching they can be frozen, which is what Çiğdem had done after the picking the leaves from her garden in Turkey. She eyeballs all the quantities, but I have done my best to take note of what she did. You could also use lamb, other herbs (like dill or mint), or just rice (instead of rice and bulgur), but this the recipe as she taught it to me.
For about 60 leaves
700 grams (1.5 lbs) ground beef
60 grape leaves, blanched
2 red onions, finely minced
2 ripe tomatoes, finely minced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
4 Tbsp tomato paste, divided
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
100 grams (1/2 cup) bulgur, rinsed and drained
100 grams (1/2 cup) rice, rinsed and drained
2 Tbsp minced fresh flat leaf parsley
Turkish sweet red aleppo pepper flakes (tatlı kırmızı pul biber)
Combine 700 grams ground beef with two finely minced red onions.
Add 2 finely minced ripe tomatoes.
Add 100 grams rice and 100 grams bulgur, both rinsed and drained, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, and 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil.
Add the freshly squeezed juice of half a lemon.
Season with salt and aleppo pepper flakes. Those pepper flakes (at least the tatlı (sweet) variety) are not very spicy.
Add some water (about 80 ml, 1/3 cup), and mix gently with your hands.
All the ingredients should be well mixed, but the the meat should retain a loose texture rather than being kneaded. It should also be quite moist. These two points are crucial for making succulent sarma.
Wrap some of the filling in a grape leaf and cook in the microwave to taste the seasoning. If needed, add more salt, pepper flakes, or lemon juice.
Lay out the grape leaves with the veins on top (so the ‘pretty’ side below).
If the are indentations, arrange the leaf such that they are invisible. Remove the stem.
Place some of the meat mixture shaped as a finger on the leaf. The amount of meat will depend on the size of the leaf, so the sarma will have different sizes. Do not pack the meat tightly, it should retain a loose texture. It should be right where the stem used to be, with some flaps to wrap around on both sides. In other words, do not use too much filling.
Fold the flaps from the sides and the bottom, and then roll up the leaf tightly. The bundle should be so tight that it does not fall apart when you pick it up, and you should not be able to see any meat.
Keep doing this until you run out of the meat mixture.
You can boil or steam them, in a regular pot or a pressure cooker.
To boil, put some grape leaves on the bottom of the pot so the sarma won’t stick. Çiğdem steams them in a pressure cooker. Put a steaming basket in the pressure cooker.
Neatly stack the sarma on top.
Cut the squeezed lemon into chunks and place on top of the sarma.
To boil, add enough water, in which you have diluted 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and some salt, to almost cover the sarma.
To steam in the pressure cooker, dilute a tablespoon of tomato paste in 250 ml (1 cup) of water and add this to the bottom of the pot.
Sprinkle some extra virgin olive oil on top.
Cover with a (heat proof) plate to keep everything in place.
To boil, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the sarma are cooked, about 45 minutes.
To pressure steam, bring to pressure, cook for 20 minutes, and then wait until the pressure drops by itself (about 10 minutes).
Taste whether the sarma are done.
Serve warm with the cooking liquid to dip them in.
They are better the next day. Allow to cool and store in the refrigerator, making sure to keep the cooking liquid as well. Heat them up in the microwave with some of the cooking liquid to keep them moist.