Recipes from Albania

In my search for something delicious - and Albanian - I turned to one of my students in the mural project. Melita was hands-down the best artist I met on this trip to Albania. The day I met her, she had a prize winning painting in a local art competition. Of course, I instantly liked her.

As far as food goes, Melita liked Sarma. Now, I'd never heard of that before, but an online search revealed it's a treat throughout the former Ottoman Empire (including much of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East and Northern Africa). There are variations where you roll all kinds of goodies into grape leaves, white cabbage, Swiss chard or collard greens. If you stuff the leaves, then it would be dolma. If all of this makes perfect sense to you, you're way better in the kitchen than me.

Melita's Sarma
Gjirokastra, Albania
.......... 40 - 50 grape leaves   mint, 1/4 cup  
  1 large onion   juice of one lemon (but keep a few wedges)  
  3 Tbs olive oil   1 tomato  
  1/2 cup of rice   1 Tbs tomato paste  
  salt and pepper to taste   1 pound of minced beef or lamb  
  dill, one bunch   2 cups water or chicken stock  
  parsley, 1/2 cup   dab of butter  

Melita obviously knows what she is doing in the kitchen. Her recipe didn't have all the portions and guidance I need in the kitchen. So, I combined her recipe with additional help online. (How did we ever do anything before computers?)

There are special instructions about the grape leaves that I never would have thought about. Cut off the stems from all the leaves, all the way up to and just past where the stalk joins the leaf. Then, if there are any leaves that are spoiled for some reason, place them in the bottom of a cooking pot. If some of those leaves end up sticking to the pot, then none of the really good rolls will be ruined. Place the good leaves in another pot. Melita specifically said you don't want the same sides touching. So, place one leaf face down, the next one face up and then continue alternating. Cover the leaves with boiling water and soak them for ten to fifteen minutes. After that, rinse the leaves with cold water.

Once the leaves are prepared, set them aside.

Place the rice in salted hot water. Set it aside for 25 minutes.

Now, it's time to focus on the filling. Finely chop up the onion. If you can do it without crying, please tell me the secret. I always have tears. Sauté the onion up with the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and any collection of herbs and spices that meets your needs. That list could include dill, parsley and mint in any amount you find in your kitchen.

Remove from heat and add the rice (drained), lemon juice, tomato paste, diced tomato and ground or minced meat. Now, Melita's recipe didn't include a tomato, tomato paste or meat of any kind. But, I think they would be good additions.

The fun begins. Well, it'll probably be fun after you get the hang of things. It's time to roll the goodies in the grape leaves. Place a leaf on your work surface - face down, backside up. Add one or two tablespoons of the meat mixture where the stem was trimmed off. Fold the left side of the leaf over the mixture. Then, fold the right side of the leaf over the mixture. Finally, roll up the leaf as neatly and tightly as possible. Place the grape leaf roll in the cooking pot with those extra leaves at the bottom. Keep the seams down, placing the rolls right next to each other. Keep going until you've rolled all your leaves.

When all the leaves are rolled and placed, put any extra leaves on top of the rolls. Pour in two cups of water or chicken stock as well as a dab of butter. On top of all that, place a heat-proof dish over the rolls to keep them pressed down and in position. Turn on medium heat, waiting ever so patiently for that pot to boil. When you see bubbles, lower the heat and continue cooking for about 45 minutes so the rice and meat can completely cook, the leaves become tender and the water (or chicken stock) can be absorbed.

If it doesn't already sound simply amazing, garnish the rolls with lemon wedges and serve your sarma up with yogurt and homemade bread.

Copyright 2015 by Phillip Martin. All rights reserved.