California is well known for its wine country and scenic vineyards throughout the state, but here is a vintage recipe you may not have heard of: Pronghorn Antelope Dolmas.
This derivative of the popular Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dish infuses the delicate flavor of fresh grape leaves with robust pronghorn sausage, jasmine rice and a hint of cream cheese to harmonize the flavors into a phenomenal appetizer that will disappear the second you set them down on the table. While many cultures claim the dolma for their own, many historians believe the dish originated in the city of Thebes, an ancient town along the Nile River. It was discovered and popularized by Alexander the Great around 335 B.C. and quickly became a staple for the greek warriors in his army.
I am fortunate to live in an apartment complex with a few well-established grape vines that are usually fought over during the fall when fruits are ready to harvest. However, until recently no one had ever used the leaves. I have been experimenting with several recipes and this is by far my favorite, although the smoked bluefin tuna wrapped in grape leaves is a close second!
A couple notes about selecting grape leaves and methods: Be sure you aren't harvesting grape leaves that have been sprayed by pesticides, and when picking the perfect leaf some discretion will go a long way. Try to aim for about 4 or 5 leaves back from the end of the vine -- these will be shiny and lighter in color. You want something roughly the size of your hand and picking them earlier in the season usually yields better results. This will also allow you to harvest many leaves throughout the vegetative growth stage of the plant without impacting any of the grape yield. Cooking the filling is traditionally done after rolling the leaves, but I do it first in this recipe because i had many of the ingredients already cooked. I recommend experimenting with the amount of cream cheese/mayo as I usually use just enough to bind ingredients so as not to overpower the other flavors.
- 1 lb. ground pronghorn sausage or equivalent protein
- 1 cup long grain jasmine rice
- Fresh grape leaves (can substitute for canned just don't blanch)
- 1/3 cup cream cheese
- 2 tbsp mayonnaise
- 2 large lemons
Grape Leaf Preparation
- Rinse leaves and trim stems
- Blanch for 10-15 minutes in boiling water to soften
- Immediately plunge into ice bath to set color
- Lay out to dry on paper towels to dry if you aren't using them right away
Meat and Filling Prep
- Cook pronghorn sausage or protein of your choice on a hot cast iron skillet
- Take some of the oil from the pan and use it to fry up jasmine rice before cooking it
- Once pronghorn is cooked, set it aside and stir fry cooked rice in the pan briefly (works best with leftover rice or after it has cooled)
- Combine rice, pronghorn, cream cheese and mayonnaise in a bowl until it is well mixed
Rolling the Dolmas
- Lay out a grape leaf and place filling in center
- Squeeze a small amount of lemon over everything
- Fold bottom over first and then sides in trying to cover any openings in the leaf
- Tuck and finish rolling like you would a joint (or burrito) just don't lick it ;)
- Place on on serving tray and squeeze lemon over the top
- Add lemon slices to garnish