Every recipe has its variables. It's a basic kitchen truth that those of us who test recipes professionally are ever conscious of (and occasionally frustrated by) whenever we encounter a new recipe. Here at the Los Angeles Times, every recipe is tested, and frequently retested, in our test kitchen until we are confident it will work for the average home cook. We double-check ingredients, streamline the method and eliminate as many variables as possible. Some recipes, like this week's dolmas recipe, are as much a learning experience for us as they were for the schoolteachers in Times staff writer Mary MacVean's story.
We tested the dolmas recipe over two weeks and noticed several variables over the course of testing involving the rice for the filling and the grape leaves. The original recipe was not specific about the rice used in the filling, calling only for "short- or medium-grain" rice; in our tests we used Arborio rice and found that we needed much more water than the original recipe required to parboil the rice. We also noticed during our tests that not all grape leaves are created equal; some grape leaves are small and tender, while others can be large and tough. Both factors can significantly affect the overall cooking time and the number of dolmas the recipe might yield.
We contacted Barbara Petzen, outreach director of the Middle East Policy Council and the recipe's author. We went over the notes from our tests and asked about the rice and grape leaves. Petzen mentioned that she uses a particular type of Turkish rice in her dolmas, and wrote the recipe around the use of this rice, though she was purposely vague about the rice in the recipe so cooks could use what was locally available and what they preferred. And she explained that the size and texture of the grape leaves can vary by season. (Who knew grape leaves had a season?) Jarred grape leaves can also vary by region and how big the leaves are when they are picked. She prefers to use smaller, more tender leaves, which determined the amount of filling used for each dolmas in the original recipe, as well as total yield and cooking time; our leaves tended to be larger, requiring more filling and affecting yield and cooking time.
After more discussion, we adapted the final recipe to address these variables. And learned a lot along the way.
-- Noelle Carter