Making dolmas more than just food prep for Mireille Pavez
Mireille Pavez reaches into the thick grape vine that grows in her garden, looking for just the right size leaves.
“These are too big,” she says, tossing them on the ground. When she has found the right size, we wander back to the kitchen, where I am about to learn to make dolmas.
Cooking is the way Mireille shares her heritage, whether she is making traditional Lebanese food to welcome her daughter back from college or simply chatting with friends as she prepares a meal to be shared over a glass of wine and good conversation.
Mereille, a Spanish teacher at All Saints Episcopal School and the wife of Father Michael Pavez, the priest as St. Michael’s Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Beaumont, took a break from preparing food for the church’s upcoming Mediterranean Festival to share her culinary skills.
The leaves are picked fresh from her garden from a grape vine that is an ancestor of a plant originally brought to Southeast Texas by the Haddad family more than 80-years ago.
“They’ve been here forever, they used to have rice farms,” Mireille said. “And everyone who comes here, they need grape leaves, the Haddad family would give them. Now I do it, because we all, like, we can share you know? Whoever wants some, wait until February (when they are pruned), and in February you give them a stick and it grows.”
The grape vines’ heritage ties into the orthodox community’s rich sense of history. Mireille’s grape vine grows next to a fig tree, as one would find in her Lebanese homeland. She doesn’t know the chemistry, she said, but they grow well together. Grape vines are suited to the Southeast Texas climate, as it mirrors Lebanon’s hot and wet climate. These particular vines do not grow grapes, and the leaves will grow until October.
The dolmas’ filling is rice and ground beef, seasoned with black pepper, salt and allspice, which is made from the dried berries of a plant known as Pimenta dioica. Mireille also adds a little cinnamon as every Lebanese meat dish has a hint of cinnamon in it.
After cutting off the stalks, the leaves are blanched for a few minutes in boiling water, before being allowed to cool. “You don’t want them hot with the meat,” she said.
Mireille starts to roll the dolmas. The leaves are spread out flat on a board and she takes a small portion of the meat and rice mix and spreads it across the leaf. She rolls the bottom over, tucks in the sides, then rolls the rest of the leaf. The dolmas are about four inches or five inches long. Then you place it on a tray and repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
One quickly understands why cooking the dolmas is such a social activity. They are not hard to make, but they are time consuming. Mireille chatted happily away about her family, the church and the festival (the church volunteers made more than 3,400 dolmas for the festival, but they normally sell out in a couple of hours). It was a pleasant way to spend an evening, and Mireille likes nothing more than cooking, so it never felt like an imposition.
Once all the meat is wrapped (three pounds of meat and three pounds of rice made around 40 dolmas), Mireille puts them in a pot with water, lemon juice and salt. In the bottom of the pot, she adds a lamb chop for seasoning.
“You put a plate on the top, so it won’t go crazy, and then cook it until the rice is cooked, about 45 minutes,” she said.
Dolmas are served with laban (yogurt) which, like everything else, is made from scratch. Mireille said the recipe is traditional, but the cooking time is hard to quantify.
“You stick your finger in it and count to 10. If you can handle more than that, it’s not ready,” she said, before pausing and laughing that she keeps meaning to time how long the cooking time actually is.
I was told beforehand that I was expected to eat the dolmas (as if I needed persuading). After all, Mireille said, how can I write about them if I haven’t tasted them. I can report they were delicious.
We were joined by Father Michael and friends Anita and Ramona on the back patio, where we ate dolmas dipped in laban, with hummus and fresh tabouleh, which I learned should be scooped up by the hands with pita bread. We shared a glass of wine, and the aforementioned good conversation.
I can’t wait until February when I have been promised my own cutting from the vine. I look forward to being a small part of Mireille’s community. I can’t wait to invite people while I prepare my own dolmas. Now, how long is that yogurt supposed to cook?
The Mediterranean Festival is May 7, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at St. Michaels, 690 North 15th St. in Beaumont. Admission is free and food tickets are available for purchase at the entrance.
This story first ran in the May 6, 2022 Art of Living section of The Beaumont Enterprise.