Lunch at Mimi’s Hummus

Most rainy days find me curled up on my couch, watching TV or flipping through the pages of a magazine in order to avoid the terrible weather outside. But during last Saturday’s torrential downpour, I actually left the apartment, for a very important reason: My dear friend Rachel was taking me out for a belated birthday lunch at Mimi’s Hummus in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. This tiny Israeli-inspired restaurant, with its warm orange walls and high ceilings, has received much positive attention lately, and I couldn’t wait to try it. Even the driving rain and high winds couldn’t keep me away.

We started with much-needed cups of hot mint and sage tea ($1.50), and snacked on complimentary olives and pickles while deciding what to order from chef Mimi Kitani’s varied menu. Five types of hummus with intriguing toppings such as mushrooms, tahini, and ground beef with pine nuts made it difficult to choose just one. But we finally settled on the fava bean version ($8), and ordered a basket of whole wheat and white pita bread to accompany it.

As soon as the hummus arrived, Rachel and I tore off bits of pita from the soft, pillowy rolls and eagerly scooped away at the spread. Creamy, light, and silky smooth, the hummus was simply amazing. The warm fava bean stew, nestled into the center of the spread, added an extra layer of richness, and I was so enthralled with the dish’s texture that I barely noticed the delicate lemon garlic dressing.

Next we split the shakshuka eggs, a piping hot, bubbling pan of eggs, tomatoes, red peppers, and spices such as turmeric and cumin ($9.50). It reminded me of a more fiery, Middle Eastern version of the Eggs in Purgatory I made a few weeks ago. Once again we put the pita bread to good use, swiping away at the sides of the cast iron pan so that none of the eggs or the deep, yolk-infused sauce went to waste. A crunchy Israeli salad, with cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs, added a cool freshness to our meal as well ($5).

As Rachel and I chatted and sipped more tea, our waitress asked if we’d like dessert. After a moment of surprise—we had been so engrossed in our food and conversation that we hadn’t considered it—we went with the mysterious punchim ($3). Crushed chocolate graham crackers coated with coconut, these punchim were soft, buttery balls of chocolate decadence.

We took a peek at Market, the adorable food shop next door that is also run by Mimi’s owners. A quick tour revealed Brooklyn favorites such as McClure’s Pickles and Brooklyn Brine Co., as well as an array of Middle Eastern ingredients, specialty cheeses, and cured meats. Later, as I walked to the subway in the growing storm, I realized I was already thinking about my next visit to Mimi’s. Even if it’s raining again, I have four more types of hummus to try.

Mimi’s Hummus, 1209 Cortelyou Road between Westminster Road and East 13th Street in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. T: 718-284-4444. Market is located right next door, at 1211 Cortelyou Road.

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From Leaf to Stem

Every few weeks I find myself in the same position: Hunkered down in front of my open refrigerator with a plastic bag in hand, tossing withered produce and uneaten leftovers into the trash. Limp, yellowed parsley; saggy celery; dried-out chunks of onion; I’m always surprised at—and disappointed by—the amount of food that Jim and I waste each week.

In contrast to my guilt-inducing produce situation, Cathy Erway (of the popular blog Not Eating Out in New York) talks about her success with limiting food waste in her lovely new book, The Art of Eating In. As part of her desire to cook more and spend less, Erway employs often-discarded vegetable accessories such as beet greens and fennel fronds in her dishes, so that no part of the vegetable goes unused. While reading these pages, all I could think was I bet celery never goes bad in Cathy’s fridge. I hung my head in shame and once again vowed to change my ways. Surprisingly, I actually had some luck doing so.

It started with a big, floppy bunch of Swiss chard. I removed the stems and combined the pink-rimmed leaves with some leftover baby spinach, onions, feta cheese, and phyllo dough for a gorgeous Greek-inspired vegetarian pie. This light, flaky pie lasted us through one dinner and several lunches; not a single bite was left behind. And as I emptied the crisper drawers of plastic spinach containers and leftover cheese wrappers, I placed the Swiss chard stems in their place, instead of throwing them in the trash like I often do.

For the next few days, those stems stared at me every time I reached past them for tomatoes or salad greens. Finally, when they were about to turn, I pulled out a recipe for baked Swiss chard stems that I’d been saving for years. Similar to a casserole, the stems are layered with tomato sauce, garlic, and parmesan cheese, and baked in the oven until golden brown. Classic Italian flavors combine with an overlooked yet ruby-red vegetable for a satisfying side dish. And the best part was, not a single part of that Swiss chard went to waste. Not only was I proud of myself—and happy that I evaded another round of chard-induced guilt—but I discovered a delicious new side as well. I hope the trend continues; maybe I should try beet greens next. Thanks for the inspiration, Cathy!

Recipe for Baked Swiss Chard Stems with Tomatoes, Garlic, and Parmesan (adapted from Jack Bishop’s recipe as published in the New York Times on April 5, 2000)

  • 1/2 lb chard stems, bruised parts trimmed, halved crosswise
  • salt
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for baking dish
  • 2 small garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1-14 1/2 ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring a few quarts of salted water to boil in a large pot. Add the chard stems and cook until they are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium in a medium skillet. Add the garlic and cook until golden, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer until sauce is almost dry, about 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cover the bottom of a lightly greased baking dish with a single layer of chard, cutting stems if necessary to fit them in the dish. Spoon a bit of tomato sauce over the stems, and sprinkle with a little cheese. Repeat with the next layer of chard, alternating the direction of the stems. Finish tomato sauce and cheese. Sprinkle the parsley across the top.

Bake until chard is very tender and top layer is browned, about 25 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and let settle for 5 minutes. Cut into squares and serve. Serves 4 as a side dish. Enjoy!

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It’s the Little Things

Over the years, I’ve revealed a few facts about myself on this blog. For example, I often mention my Italian-American upbringing and that I currently live in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. You know that I’m married to a wonderful man named Jim, and that I join the local CSA every summer. Well, here’s another piece of information about me, albeit a bit more obscure: I have a fascination with small things.

Let me explain: In the back of my pantry, you’ll find an entire row of pint-size ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise jars. I used to collect sample packets of shampoo and hand lotion as a kid, and my Facebook photo is a picture of me eating a miniature creme brulee with a tiny spoon. Perhaps my obsession stems from the fact that I’m only 5 feet tall, I’m not sure. Whatever the reason, I’ve been fixated on little things for as long as I can remember.

On Valentine’s Day, Jim and I planned our menu around my small-sized fetish. A year ago we purchased two sets of Staub mini cocottes and promptly stored them away in the cupboard, forgotten. Cocottes are small cooking vessels, often shaped like Dutch ovens, that are suitable for individual portions of food. (Apparently cocotte is also the French word for a prostitute or promiscuous woman, but we’ll leave that discussion for another blog.) We pulled ours out from their dusty boxes on Valentine’s Day and finally put them to good use, primarily with the help of Le Creuset’s handy mini cocotte cookbook that we stumbled across during a recent trip to Pittsburgh.

First course
For the first course, we made French onion soup. Granted, the soup was first cooked in a big pot and then transferred to the tiny cocotte, but it fit the size requirement just fine. It was next topped with crusty bread, gruyère cheese, more onion, and baked in the oven for a few minutes. Hot and hearty, this soup was a cozy opening course on a chilly holiday.

Spinach souffles in mini cocottes

Second course
The next part of our tiny-themed meal arrived in the form of mini spinach soufflés. They had already started to deflate by the time I took this photo, and I’ll be honest, they weren’t the most successful part of our meal. We’re still not certain what went wrong; we beat the egg whites until they were stiff, and we followed the recipe closely. In the end the soufflés were a rather deflated and defeated mess of fresh baby spinach, eggs, and parmesan cheese.

Dessert
Moving on from our soggy soufflés, we ended our meal with vanilla creme brulee, served in two small ceramic hearts that Jim bought for our first Valentine’s Day together. They were rich, creamy pick-me-ups after our disappointing second course. And of course they looked absolutely adorable.

So that’s the photographic tour of our Valentine’s Day feast. It was pint-sized all the way through, from start to finish. I’d love to eat out of these cute containers every day, but that would be impossible; my appetite is anything but cocotte-sized.

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Cooking with Mom: Beef Pizzaiola

When I was a kid, I never thought about where my next meal was coming from. All I knew was that sooner or later my mother would call me into the kitchen from playing outside to sit down with the rest of my family and eat the dinner she had prepared for us. More often than not, her meals were inspired by her Southern Italian upbringing. Spaghetti with marinara sauce, roast chicken with potatoes and bread crumbs, stuffed eggplants and artichokes—these are the dishes I remember from my childhood and have always wanted to make my own.

Last week I invited my mother to my apartment so we could cook one of her classic Italian recipes together: Beef Pizzaiola. It’s a simple, one-pot meal of tomato sauce and chuck steak with a spicy yet comforting aroma I can recognize immediately. The word pizzaiola means pizza-style, and refers to a tomato sauce made with garlic and oregano. I tried to do some research about this recipe’s origins, but all I could find was a short note about how this humble dish doesn’t have a defined history; no one has ever laid claim to it because it’s just that simple.

Now, let me make something clear: my mother and I cooked her version of this herb-filled, meaty sauce. There are many variations of this dish online and in cookbooks, but we made the version that has existed in her Apuglian family for generations. I have no idea which recipe is more authentic than another, as every region and every tiny village in Italy has its own culinary traditions. This is ours.

My mother’s recipe is very straightforward: Take some chuck steak, a can of whole tomatoes (pureed in the food processor), a bit of garlic, a few handfuls of pecorino romano cheese, parsley, oregano, and a few glugs of olive oil, and throw it all in a big pot. I should note here that my mother does not measure her ingredients; she eyeballs them, which is why I needed to cook with her and try to write down all the steps. Anyway, the ingredients sit one on top of the other, in festive layers of green, red, and white, until they come to a boil. Then you just let the whole mixture of beef and tomatoes simmer away for an hour or so, stirring it here and there, until the meat is very tender and can be pulled apart with a fork.

Served over spaghetti with some meat on the side or as a secondo, this sauce is completely different from your everyday marinara. Dark red, abundantly spiked with gutsy oregano and salty romano cheese, pizzaiola is a hearty, in-your-face type of sauce. Infused with flavor from the slow-cooked meat, the sauce is deep and satisfying, and an appropriate remedy for these cold winter days. And while chuck steak can be rather tough, in this dish it’s transformed into a soft, satisfying bit of protein.

As you can probably tell, the pizzaiola tasted as wonderful as I remembered. I just hope it will again next time, when I attempt to make it without my mother.

Recipe for Mom’s Beef Pizzaiola

  • 1 1/2 pounds chuck steak
  • 1 28-ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup parsley leaves
  • 1/3 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound of spaghetti

Cut each steak roughly into thirds. You should try to achieve equally-sized chunks of meat, following the natural lines of the steaks.

Pulse the tomatoes a few times in the food processor. They should be left a little chunky; they do not need to be perfectly smooth.

Combine the meat and the tomatoes in a big pot. Add the garlic, parsley, cheese, oregano, and olive oil. Do not stir.

Bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat and bring to a simmer. Cover. Stir every once in a while, making sure the meat doesn’t burn and the cheese doesn’t clump together. If the sauce seems to reduce too much and becomes too thick, add a little bit of water to the pot. Once the sauce is simmering, bring a big pot of salted water to boil for the spaghetti.

Cook for about an hour, until the meat is soft and breaking apart with a fork. About fifteen minutes before the sauce is done, cook the spaghetti.

When the spaghetti is drained, stir with 2 or 3 spoonfuls of sauce. Plate the spaghetti, and generously sprinkle each dish with romano cheese. Top with sauce. Serve the meat on the side or after the spaghetti course is finished. Serves 4 with leftovers. Enjoy!

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Snow Day

Last Wednesday morning I shuffled to the window in my robe and slippers, took one look at the fat, drippy snowflakes swirling around outside, and immediately gave myself a snow day. It was the morning after my birthday, after all, and as a child of February I figured I deserved it. So while thick piles of snow quickly covered the brownstones, trees, and sidewalks outside my Brooklyn apartment, I huddled under a blanket inside. I passed the hours drinking tea, watching Lost, and checking my work email here and there. When I finally finished lazing around on the couch, I made my way over to the kitchen and started cooking.

Cold, snowy days call for slow-cooked comfort food, and as soon as I heard the weather reports earlier in the week I began planning the perfect snow day dinner. I wanted something warm and rustic, a dish to make us forget the chilling winds and falling flakes outside. Florence Fabricant’s Chicken Baked with Lentils, a recipe I had saved for just such an occasion, came to mind immediately, and I made sure I had all the ingredients on hand before the snow started falling.

In this recipe, chicken thighs are nestled in an earthy cloud of cumin-spiced lentils, pancetta, radicchio, and chicken stock. Piled into a baking dish or casserole, the mixture cooks away for a tranquil hour in the oven, the liquid slowly reducing into a saucelike consistency. Soon enough, the comforting aroma of baked chicken infused my apartment, and the snow seemed very far away indeed.

When finally pulled from the oven, the spicy lentils become a complex mix of smoky (provided by the pancetta), tangy (from the radicchio), and sweet (the onions), while the chicken remains moist and tender, absorbing the essence of the lentils in a more subtle way. Dominating this dish in terms of both flavor and quantity, the legumes retain a hint of firmness, and provide a supportive bed for the meaty chicken thighs. Together they’re a hearty, one-pot wonder of a meal, and if we’re lucky enough to have another snow day, I may even have to make this again.

Chicken Baked with Lentils (adapted from Florence Fabricant’s recipe in the New York Times)

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 thin slice of pancetta (less than 1/4 lb)
  • 4 chicken thighs, patted dry
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup of finely chopped onions
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped celery
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 cup finely chopped radicchio
  • 1/2 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh sage
  • 1 cup of French green lentils
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup water*

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or another ovenproof casserole dish. Add the pancetta and cook on medium heat until golden. Remove the pancetta and set aside. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and add them to the pot, skin side down. Sear until golden on medium-high heat. Remove from the pan and set aside. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Remove one tablespoon of fat from the pan and set aside. Pour out the rest of the fat and discard. Return the tablespoon of fat to the pan.

Add onions, celery, and garlic. Cook on medium until soft and translucent, about 10-15 minutes. Stir in the cumin. Add the radicchio, vinegar, and sage. Sauté briefly. Add lentils, stock, water, and cooked pancetta.

*I used 1 cup chicken stock plus 1/2 cup water because I cheated and used prepared chicken stock from a box. When I use commercial stock I like to dilute it a little bit with water. If you are using homemade chicken stock, feel free to use 1 1/2 cups chicken stock and disregard the water.

Return the chicken to the pan, bring to a simmer, cover, and place in the oven. Cook for about an hour, checking on the lentils occasionally. Cook until the lentils are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Lentils should be saucelike, but not soupy. Add more stock if necessary. Add more salt and pepper if necessary, then serve. Recipe serves 3 to 4 people, or 2 to 3 people with leftovers. Enjoy!

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Eggs in Purgatory

Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? I don’t have an easy explanation for where I’ve been the past few months. All I can say is that I dropped off the grid for a while, and now I’m doing my best to resurface. I’ve missed my little blog. It’s a bigger part of me than I realized, and I’ve deeply felt its absence. For the past three years, Artichoke Heart has been my primary creative outlet, and this too-long pause made me wonder what I enjoyed most about blogging: thinking about food, writing about food, or being excited about food. Because honestly, I wasn’t feeling any of it, and wasn’t sure when or if I would again.

But I have been cooking. I experimented with this recipe for Drunken Noodles, and another one for stuffed cabbage. I made spaghetti and meatballs and an ice cream icebox cake that caused my dear friend’s children to squeal with delight. And after each successful (or not successful) meal, I wondered if it would lead me back to the blog. I came close a few times, sitting at the computer, fingers on the keys and staring at the blank screen, but the words wouldn’t come. Finally, on Friday night, I made a dish that reflected my self-inflicted, in-between state: Eggs in Purgatory.

It’s a dramatic name for a simple Southern Italian dish, a classic example of cucina povera where a robust, healthy meal is made from a few basic ingredients. Eggs in Purgatory are just poached eggs in tomato sauce. Yup, that’s it. You crack a few eggs over a simmering onion- or garlic-based tomato sauce, and let them slowly cook, the golden centers and creamy whites quivering in a bubbling, crimson sea of tomatoes. Gently pour the gleaming eggs and sauce over a piece of toast, and dinner is served.

Something about the flavors of this dish hit Jim and me right away. Our forks returned time and time again, the soft egg yolks bleeding gently into the sweet tomatoes. I overcooked the eggs a little bit (they were closer to soft-boiled than poached) but no matter. The crunchy bread beneath was the perfect base for the liquid mass of protein and tomatoes above.

Perhaps the allusion to Purgatory is derived from the image of eggs momentarily suspended in the tomato sauce, a symbolic transitory state between Heaven and Hell. Whatever the connotation of this dish may be, I hope my extended blogging lapse is over, and that I’ve found my way back to the Choke.

Recipe for Eggs In Purgatory (with garlic-based tomato sauce), adapted from Smitten Kitchen

  • 1 14-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 slices of toasted peasant bread
  • Fresh grated Parmesan cheese

Warm the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook until the garlic has browned, stirring frequently, for about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and season with sugar, a pinch of salt, and black pepper. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 10 to 20 minutes.

Gently crack the eggs into the tomato sauce, allowing the interiors to spread throughout the sauce. Cover the pan and let the eggs cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, uncover, and let the pan stand for 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer 2 eggs to each piece of toast and cover with sauce. Garnish with cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Serves 2 as a main dish. Enjoy!

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Cooking from the CSA: Collard Greens

After almost three years of writing this blog, I have finally realized something fairly obvious: When I come across a food-related issue I’m excited about—no matter whether it’s a restaurant, recipe, or trend—I need to write about it immediately. Putting the story on the back burner just never works; the struggle to get my words down becomes more intense, convoluted, and difficult.

Take this post, for example. I’ve wanted to tell you about the great fun I had last month cooking collard greens for the first time. Did you hear that—I cooked them last month! Twice! But first I decided to write about that farro soup I made sometime in October. And then I didn’t have any time to blog last week or over the weekend. So before I knew it, even more time had passed, the collard greens were a faint memory, and I dreaded trying to write about them. But while blogging about them was hard, it doesn’t mean I enjoyed the collards any less. Here, I’ll try to remember everything that happened:

When I received my first bunch of this floppy, wide-leafed vegetable from my CSA, I had no idea what to do with it. I knew collard greens were often used in Southern cooking, and a little research confirmed that they are traditionally cooked for a couple of hours, perhaps with some ham hocks, and served as a side. Not that this is necessary—further reading confirmed that a 30 to 45 minute simmer is usually enough to adequately soften the leaves. As with many greens, collards are high in several vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, and potassium. With all this good news about collards, I started to wonder why I hadn’t worked with them before.

For my first attempt at cooking them, I tried this spicy white bean and sweet potato soup. (Another reason why I need to blog about these meals right away: Weeks later, I can’t find any of my photos of this soup. And it was truly gorgeous, a beautiful mix of vibrant colors. Sigh.) The thick greens held their own against the other hearty elements in this sweet yet spicy soup, and I strutted through my apartment afterwards, proud of myself for creating a successful meal with this foreign vegetable.

But then I received another bunch just two weeks later in my CSA shipment. While I briefly contemplated another soup, I really wanted to try something different. I guess great minds think alike, because that week both Mark Bittman and I decided to use these leaves as wrappers. Mr. Bittman encased Middle Eastern-inspired meatballs in his collard greens, while I adapted Claudia Roden’s recipe for hot dolma, using collards instead of grape leaves.

The process of making hot dolma is not much different from making cold ones, and using fresh collard greens instead of jarred grape leaves makes the process much simpler. (Jarred leaves require soaking, which fresh ones do not.) After blanching the leaves for a few minutes, I simply stuffed them with a mix of rice, ground lamb, spices, and tomato paste. Then, after an additional hour on the stovetop, they were ready.

Jim and I ate them for dinner, eagerly biting into the compact little bundles of spiced rice and meat. The lemony collards yielded easily to the tomato-spiked rice mixture inside, and I just couldn’t get enough of this sturdy, versatile, and healthy green. Although it was a struggle to write about these collard greens, there’s no way I could forget about them.

Recipe for Hot Dolma with Collard Greens (adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food)

  • 1 bunch of large collard greens

For the filling:

  • 1/2 cup long-grain rice
  • 1/2 pound ground lamb
  • 1 small tomato, peeled and chopped (We actually just chopped up a bunch of cherry tomatoes, and they worked fine.)
  • 1/2 white onion, finely diced
  • 3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • salt and pepper

For the pans/cooking time:

  • 1/2 tomato, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, slivered
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Prepare your collard greens. Wash them thoroughly under running water, and remove the stem from the bottom of each leaf. Simmer the leaves in boiling water for about 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Blot the leaves dry and let them cool completely. Then cut the leaf into 3 equal pieces: Slice once across the top of the leaf, and set the top aside. Then cut the remaining part of the leaf in half, discarding the thick center stem. Continue with the rest of the leaves.

Wash the rice in boiling water, then rinse under cold water and drain. In a large bowl, mix the rice with the ground meat, chopped tomato, onion, parsley, cinnamon, tomato paste, salt, and pepper.

Now stuff your collard leaves with the mixture. Take one slice of the collard leaves, and place it on a flat surface, vein side up. Place about 1 1/2 small spoonfuls of the rice mixture in the center of the leaf. Fold the end over the filling. Fold the sides of the leaf in towards the middle, and the roll the leaf upwards. Make sure the sides of the leaf continue to fold inward as you roll the leaf upwards. Repeat with the rest of the leaves. Set aside.

Line the bottom of a large, high-sided sauté pan or one Dutch oven with the sliced tomatoes. Tightly pack the grape leaves into one layer, on top of the tomatoes. Slip the garlic cloves in between the rolls if desired. Sprinkle the bundles with lemon juice, and add about 2/3 cup water to the pan.

Place a small plate on top of the leaves to prevent them from possibly unwinding. Cover the pan with a lid, set the heat to low, and simmer gently for about an hour. Roden’s book suggests adding small cups of water if the pans run out of liquid, but I did not have this problem. Serve hot. We made about 20 dolma with this recipe. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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