Vegetarian stuffed vine leaves or vegetarian sarma with rice and mushrooms, cooked in an aromatic tomato broth.
These vegetarian stuffed vine leaves or sarma are a well-known Turkish dish. Also called Yaprak sarma, they are originally filled with ground meat. However, the vegetarian versions with rice and vegetables or with rice and sultanas or raisins and nuts are very popular as well.
And not only in Turkey, sarma or sarmale are also very popular in my home country, Romania, the Balkans and all over Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Actually, in most regions that were once occupied by the Ottoman Empire.
This particular vegetarian or vegan version of sarma is very popular in Romania during the fasting time before Easter and Christmas. The Orthodox religion doesn't allow the consumption of meat or dairy products during these periods, so religious people (and not only) are making meatless sarmale instead of the traditional ones that are filled with pork.
How to stuff the vine leaves?
This is actually much easier than you might think. OK, you do have to take a bit of time and sit down to make those rolls, but after making 3 or 4 of them, you will get the hang of it and things will go pretty quickly.
Start by bringing a large pot of water to a boil. Boil the leaves for 3 or 4 minutes. Some might say that this pre-cooking of the leaves is not really necessary. However, my grandmother always did that, my Syrian friend who gave the recipe for the Syrian stuffed vine leaves does it as well and the only time I didn't do that I found the grape leaves a bit too tough.
There are two ways of rolling the leaves, the one I have learned from my grandmother and the one I have learned more recently. Both ways are very easy and they both work very well, there will be no need to tie the rolls with yarn or to stick a tooth pick in the rolls to make them hold together. I can tell you that I would give up making stuffed cabbage/vine leaves altogether if I had to tie each roll and then untie it at the table.
So, the two methods are pretty similar, the only difference being in the way you close the roll.
- My grandmother used to place the filling somewhere in the lower part of the leaf, fold the lower part of the leaf over the filling, then fold the right side of the leaf over the filling. Then she would roll the sarma to the end and close it with her index finger by tucking the left side of the leaf into the already formed roll.
- Place the filling somewhere in the middle-lower part of the leaf, fold the lower part of the leaf over the filling, then fold both the right and the left side of the leaf over the filling and make the roll.
Both methods work well for both cabbage and vine leaves, but I prefer to use the first method when rolling the sturdier cabbage leaves and the second method for the delicate vine leaves, I think the chance of breaking the leaves when tucking them in is higher when stuffing the vine leaves. However, you can try both methods and choose the one you feel more comfortable with.
One thing to keep in mind is to not overstuff the rolls, if you have too much filling the rolls will open during the cooking process. About 1-2 teaspoons filling for a medium vine leaf should do. You will notice if you have too much filling, you will not be able to form the roll properly.
This recipe makes approximately 40 rolls, however you will need more than 40 leaves, I always count about 10-15 more leaves than I actually think I need. The problem is that you will never ever find a jar of leaves where every single leaf is perfect. Some will be too small to fill and some will be broken. That is normal, don't worry about it. You do not have to throw those small or broken leaves away, just put two of them together to form one roll.
And I am talking about 40 rolls, but you might only get 30 or maybe 50 out of this recipe, it really depends very much on the size of the leaves.
Tips for cooking:
Another important thing when making vegetarian stuffed vine leaves is to really spice the filling well, I had my own experiences with bland fillings and bland cooking broth, and trust me, you do not want that on your plate after so much work. Adjust the taste very well with salt and pepper and be generous with all the spices as well.
Many people cook the leaves in plain water, but I was never happy with that. I use water alone when making rolls stuffed with meat, the meat will give the rolls enough taste, but that will not work when using only rice and vegetables.
That is why I recommend using a very good vegetable broth or if you don't care about keeping the meal vegetarian/ vegan you could use very good chicken stock.
How to serve?
- You can serve the sarma hot as a main meal with tomato sauce or yogurt sauce.
- 40 small rolls will feed about 4 to 6 people.
- Or you can serve them as a mezze, as part of a larger meal including other mezze. In this case they will definitely serve more than 4 people.
You could add some of these other recipes to make a nice mezze meal for a small gathering:
Vegetarian Stuffed Vine Leaves
- 40-50 vine leaves from a jar
- 200 g/ 7 oz short-grain rice
- 500 g/ 1.1 lbs mushrooms
- 3 medium carrots
- 4 large garlic cloves
- 3 medium onions
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste divided
- 2 teaspoons dry thyme
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika powder
- ½ teaspoon hot paprika powder or more to taste
- 3 tablespoons fresh parsley chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 100 ml/ a bit less than ½ cup passata di pomodoro/ tomato puree not tomato paste
- 2 bay leaves
- 5-6 black peppercorns
- 125 ml to 250 ml/ ½ – 1 cup vegetable broth as required
- fine sea salt and pepper
- Bring a pot of water to a boil. Carefully unroll the vine leaves, if they are rolled together in bundles.
- Place in the water and simmer gently for about 3 or 4 minutes. Drain well and leave until cool enough to handle.
- In the meantime, boil some water in a kettle. Place the rice in a heatproof bowl large enough to hold all the filling ingredients later. Pour the boiling water over the rice and let stand for about 5 minutes. Drain well. Return the rice back to the bowl.
- Chop the mushrooms very finely. Grate the carrots on the rough grater and the garlic cloves on the fine grater. Chop the onions very finely. Add the vegetables to the rice into the bowl.
- Add 2 tablespoons of the tomato paste, thyme, both paprika powders, chopped parsley, and olive oil.
- Adjust the taste very generously with salt, pepper, and more of the spices, if necessary. Mix well. Taste the filling to make sure it is salty and spicy enough.
- Start making the vine leaf rolls. Read above for more information on that. Place a vine leaf on the working surface. If too small or broken, use two leaves to make the filling surface larger or to cover the broken parts.
- Add 1-2 teaspoons of the rice filling (depending on the size of your leaf) in the middle-lower part of the leaf. Fold the lower part of the vine leaf over the filling, fold the left and right sides of the leaf over the filling as well, then form a roll.
- Place the roll with the seam facing down in the cooking pot.
- Repeat until you have used all the filling, arranging the rolls nicely and tightly in the pot.
- Add the bay leaves and the black peppercorns between the vine leaf rolls. Mix the tomato passata (tomato puree) with about ½ cup of the vegetable broth and the remaining two tablespoons tomato paste. Pour this mixture into the pot. Add some extra vegetable broth to barely cover the rolls.
- Cover with a tight-fitting lid and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and simmer for 1 ¼ hour. Check one roll to see if the rice is done. It should be soft and a bit sticky.
- If it is not so yet, continue cooking for about another 15 minutes adding more vegetable broth if necessary. Check the rice again and continue cooking for another 15 minutes or so if the rice is not cooked yet, but 1 ½ hour should normally be enough.
- Serve the rolls with tomato or yogurt sauce.