Paleo Stuffed Grape Leaves (Dolmas)

I’ve probably eaten hundreds (if not thousands) of stuffed grape leaves in my life.

And about 99% of them were made by my dad.

We always called them “stuffed grape leaves,” never dolmas, and they were pretty straight forward: white rice, lamb, minimal seasonings, and a light coating of lemon-egg sauce. We’d soak the leaves in the sink (never in a bowl), then my dad and I would divvy up the responsibilities: one of us separating leaves and scooping filling — the other one rolling and positioning in the pressure cooker.

According to the Dolmas entry on the all-knowing oracle that is Wikipedia, “dolma” is the noun form of the Turkish verb dolmak, which means “to be stuffed” (which sounds kinda like an insult: “Get stuffed, you freakin’ leaf!”). If you’re at all interested in how different cuisines adapt iconic dishes (guilty as charged), the Wiki page is a fun read. Iraqi cooks use pomegranate juice! In Egypt, they make ’em really small! And this tidbit was too tasty to not share with you:

In Sweden, Kåldolmar is a Swedish dish inspired by dolma, probably brought to Sweden by king Karl XII who was held captive by the Turks in Bender after losing the Battle of Poltava against the Russians in 1709. It is made of cabbage instead of grape leaves and contains minced pork or beef and rice. It is eaten with boiled potatoes, brown sauce and lingonberry jam.

Lingonberry jam! I’m intrigued.

We almost always ate stuffed grape leaves with the lemon-egg sauce which is, apparently, the Greek way (avgolemono is the Greek name for the sauce), although I like to think of it as the Tom Joulwan way. I liked to munch on stuffed grape leaves straight out of the refrigerator so the rice was very firm and the leaves snapped as my teeth broke through them. I wondered if I could replicate that solid-but-tender experience with cauliflower rice and was really happy to find that after a nice chill in the fridge, these stuffed grape leaves are close enough to the real thing to satisfy my memories and my taste buds.

Paleo Stuffed Grape Leaves (Dolmas)

Prep 20 min. | Cook 25 min. | Makes about 30 dolmas

  • 1 8-ounce jar grape leaves (I used Mezzeta.)

  • 1/2 head raw cauliflower

  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts (optional)

  • 2 tablespoons raisins or currants (optional)

  • 1 pound ground lamb (I like Lava Lake Lamb; 100% grassfed.)

  • 1/2 medium raw onion

  • 1 tablespoon dried mint

  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves

  • 2 garlic cloves

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

  • 2 fresh lemons

  • 1 large egg

NOTE: I used small amounts of the nuts and raisins since they’re “paleo” but they’re also kinda borderline in terms of nutrition. If you’re feeling like splurging, up the amount to 1/4 cup each. If you’re feeling strict, skip them completely.


Carefully remove the leaves from the jar and place in the sink or a large bowl. Cover with hot water and allow to soak at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, break the cauliflower into florets, removing the stems. Place the florets in the food processor bowl and pulse until the cauliflower looks like rice. This takes about 10 to 15 one-second pulses. Place “rice” in a large mixing bowl and put the bowl back on the food processor; no need to clean it yet.


Heat a dry skillet over medium high heat, then add pine nuts and raisins, stirring often and cooking until the pine nuts are lightly toasted, about 3-5 minutes. Set aside to cool, then coarsely chop. (I like to coarsely chop the pine nuts and raisins so I get a little in every bite.) Add the nuts and raisins to the rice in the bowl.


Place the lamb, onion, mint, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper in the bowl of a food processor and run the motor until the ingredients form a paté and everything is combined. Add the lamb paté to the rice and mix well. The easiest way to do this is with your hands: run them under a little cold water and dig in.


In a large saucepan, place a few reject leaves — the ones that are torn or small — to cover the bottom of the pan. Drain the water from the rest of the leaves and get ready to start rolling…


Place a leaf on a flat surface with the shiny side facing down, snip off the stem, and place about 1 tablespoon of filling on the end of the leaf closest to you. Roll from the bottom, fold in the sides, and keep rolling ’til you have a cigar shape. You want to roll them pretty tightly so they don’t come apart during the cooking process. (NOTE: This is different than traditional dolmas where you want to leave a little wiggle room for the rice to expand during cooking. The cauliflower actually shrinks as it cooks, so roll them up tight!) Place the rolls in the pan and nestle them up against each other pretty snuggly. Here’s a handy video to show you how it’s done. (I forbid Dave from shooting my face, but dig my cute polka dot dress!)


Cut one of the lemons into thin slices and arrange the slices on top of the dolmas in the pan. Place a heat-proof plate on top of the dolmas and press down, then add water to the pan to cover the plate with about 1 inch of water. Cover with a lid and bring to a boil. As soon as the water is rolling, turn the heat way down to a gentle simmer and cook 25-30 minutes, until the leaves are tender but still have a little bite left in ’em.


Carefully remove the plate and drain all the water from the pan — you might need to remove the dolmas to do this. Put the dolmas back in the pan and cover wth the lid so they stay hot. In a small bowl, whisk the juice from the remaining lemon with the egg until frothy. Pour over the dolmas, then put the lid back on and let them work their magic. The hot dolmas gently cook the egg/lemon sauce to create a tangy coating.


Remove the dolmas from the pan, place covered in the fridge, and wait until they’re chilled. They taste great cold, room temp, or hot — but are best if reheated, rather than eaten immediately when they come out of the pan. I like to eat them cold with a sprinkle of coarse salt and a tiny drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Paleo Stuffed Grape Leaves Taste Great With…

Baba Ghanoush
Lebanese Onion & Parsley Salad
Turkish Chopped Salad
Belly Dance Beet Salad
Cumin-Roasted Carrots
Tahini Dressing
Spiced Olives

A few words about buying lamb

I’m a new and forever fan of Lava Lake Lamb; read my review here. I should tell you that I received a lovely package of complimentary lamb from Lava Lake, but from now on, I’ll be buying my own. It’s that good, and I have zero interest in eating the somewhat bland lamb of questionable origin available at the grocery store.

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  • Andrew says:

    Wow, that looks awesome! Since going paleo, I have indulged in grape leaves sparingly. I have never made them but can’t wait to try now using cauliflower.

    Thanks for sharing, I really need to purchase your cookbook if there are similar recipes like this.

    New follower!!

  • Holly says:

    I *DO* dig your polka dot dress! 🙂

    Also, these look delicious…bookmarked!

  • pamela says:

    Growing up in a Lebanese household, I was likely to be sent into the backyard to pick grape leaves. The grape vines we had probably produced fruit, since we live in the hot San Joaquin valley, but we grew them for their tender leaves.

    I must try this recipe. It’s been a very long time since I’ve had stuffed grape leaves, which is the only name they had in our house, too.

    • Mel says:

      My family is part Lebanese, and we have a grapevine in our backyard, too! At one point, I think it got mowed down by our neighbor who cut our grass. I would LOVE to have a vine in my yard now.

  • April says:

    I have been thinking about dolmas and paleo alot lately. I love them but right now everyone is making the all rice Lenten version and I am torn between thinking Paleo is the way to go and trying to observe Lent. I am Orthodox Christion in a church that has people of many different ethnicities such as Lebanese, Ethiopian, Georgian, Ukranian and Greek. I make the dolmas with lemon but no egg. Perhaps I could make them with cauliflower and no meat for now. Thank you for the recipe and the inspiration.

    • Mel says:

      If you make them without meat, increase the amount of cauliflower — use a whole head, I think — and maybe add a little more raising and pine nuts. You might also try adding some egg to the raw cauliflower to help the ingredients stick together. Good luck! Let me know if you try it and how they turn out!

  • Sarah N says:

    All my mom’s family are from Sweden and we enjoy Kåldolmar every year at Christmas time!

  • Alisha says:

    Perfect timing! I’m going to a potluck this weekend and was wondering what to make.

    Thanks for all you do!

  • Erin says:

    I was introduced to them as “sarma” by Serbian friends when I was a kid…I love them. Thanks for sharing the recipe.

  • Erika says:

    YES!!! I have been thinking about trying something like this, we are heavily greek and I miss my dolmas more than anything. Seriously, thank you.

  • Erica G says:

    Made these tonight. Did not weigh down the plate enough at first, but they seem intact. Will let you know how they turn out tomorrow!

  • Mike says:

    I just finished eating a batch of these, following the recipe above exactly. If you like Dolmas, you probably like grape leaves. I never had Dolmas before so I had to get used to the texture and ruffage like feel of the grape leaves. I’m kinda on the fence about them, but the Dolmas as a whole were pretty yummy, and I think the lemon-egg glaze really helped push them into the yummy category. I agree with Mel, best eaten cold. I bought her Well Fed cookbook as my first Paelo cookbook, and it is really helping me to enjoy the new diet. She is hooking me on using cumin in everything! Favorite recipe so far is that caramelized pork where you boil it down in the lemon and lime juice (I used boneless pork ribs). I like Mel’s humor and background stories as well. I never thought cauliflower could be used in so many ways!

    • Mel says:

      Yeah, the grape leaves are a unique flavor and texture sensation, but once you fall for them, you’re in for life! 🙂

      So glad you’re enjoying Well Fed — thanks for stopping by and letting me know. Happy cooking and eating to you!

  • Heather says:

    oh we might have to fight, i’m part syrian. lol our family never had the sweet ones. it was straight up meat and rice with lemon. my mom still picks her leaves every year. i’ve also seen a version with a diced tomato that’s pretty good.

  • Christa says:

    I’m so excited to make these! I’m used to the Greek version, dolmades, but haven’t been indulging due to the rice issue. Thank you! On a totally different note, have you made beef jerky? I really think that’s next, but I don’t want to buy the dehydrator and find out that I’ve made something that gives me lock-jaw. I know there are plenty of paleo-peeps that have done this, but am suspicious since you haven’t. I want to be supportive of anyone living the paleo lifestyle, but honestly I’d trade all of my other paelo cookbooks for yours and yours alone.

    • Mel says:

      YAY! I’m glad you’re excited to try these. They’re pretty freaking good — especially cold.

      As for beef jerky… I’ve never made it. Mostly because I just don’t like it all that much. It’s great for roadtrips or hikes where I’m not sure I’ll a fridge, but then, honestly, I buy Primal Pacs. They use grass-fed beef, the prices aren’t bad, and the taste is really great. Sorry I can’t be more help… especially after your TOTALLY AWESOME compliments on Well Fed. Thank you. Very much.

  • Christina says:

    I made these and they are great! Went together well and I don’t even notice the substitution of the cauliflower for the rice. Which is great since my son is allergic to rice. I did find them to be a little on the bland side for me. The traditional ones made by a Greek restaurant in town I use to eat at were always a favorite for lunch, can you suggest some ways to add a bit more flavor? The bites I get currents and pine nuts are awesome! But it’s missing something for my palette, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Thank you for your suggestions!!

    • Mel says:

      Try adding more salt… I think the next time I make them, I’ll up the salt factor quite a bit. If you want to add some herb zing, mint would be tasty. Or if you want them spicy-hot, try adding some Aleppo pepper.

      • meaghan says:


        I am in love with your cookbooks, and everything I’ve made so far as been exceptional…but these were definitely lacking seasoning. I love the recipe, and I think I may try doubling the herb/spices next time around. I used mac nuts and a few golden raisins and those bites are good. I just think a lot more salt will make them pop. Plus, all that cauli rice is pretty bland so you need something to compensate with. Thanks so much for all your hard work and creativity. I’ll let you know how doubling everything goes next time I make these.

  • noblepower says:

    New to paleo & have been eating almost all from Well Fed. I am going to give these grape leaves a try for my second party in 2 days since yesterday all I could eat was crudities and the kale chips that I brought. You have been very inspiring for me as I try to overhaul my eating habits. Thank you!

    • Mel says:

      Congrats on making the switch to paleo. I’m glad Well Fed has been helping you along, and I hope your party was fun (and tasty)!

      • noblepower says:

        Party report: everyone loved these – maybe too much as I’d hoped to have some left over for lunch this week! It was interesting that several people commented on how they usually felt overly stuffed after chowing down on stuffed grape leaves/dolmas, but not on these.
        Thank you again for the great recipe!

  • Kathy says:

    I have a grape vine. How do you make these with fresh grape leaves? Are there some leaves to pick better than others?

  • AndreaSam says:

    Yummmm, so going to make these…Dolmathes are my fav!

  • Sarah says:

    Ah, true grape leaves pro! Line the bottom of the pan with the rejects. XD My Egyptian mother-in-law also uses sliced onion. That way, if there’s ever the chance of them burning (and usually there is….for me anyways), then the grape leaves (called mahshy in Egypt) are spared.
    I’ve made lots of grape leaves through the years, and what I’ve come to love are the ones with more spices. The more, the merrier. Allspice is a must in ALL of my versions, as is garlic. Fresh dill adds a refreshing oomph. Kind of like mint, but with a totally different twist.
    One more note, you can use the same recipe for filling other veggies too, like cabbage leaves and hollowed out zucchini (my FAVORITE stuffed anything!).
    Just planning out my new paleo trial – after I clear out the fridge, freezer, and pantry of all the no-no’s, and the month’s worth of meats and chicken I just bought from the butcher. :/

    • Mel says:

      I love the idea of lining the bottom with onion — and in all my years cooking these with my dad, etc., I’ve never heard that idea. THANK YOU!

      I’ve been thinking about adding more spices to my recipe, just for fun. And I agree — stuffing stuff with lamb is AWESOME!

      Best wishes for a great paleo experience!

  • Pri says:

    Made these yesterday exactly according to the recipe except I didn’t add raisins or pine nuts as I’m on a strict cutting phase now. These are delicious! The cauliflower makes the perfect rice substitute and the flavours work so well. I’m making another batch today so I can’t take them to work with me . I’m going to add a fresh chili so extra oomph. I just recently switched from a egg whites/ oats/ sweet potato and dry chicken breast type diet to a paleo and I’m loving the switch your website and book have helped me transition nicely ! Thankyou so much!

    • Mel says:

      I’m so glad you like them! I made a batch last week and ate them cold, drizzled with olive oil and extra lemon juice. YUM!

      Congrats on getting out of bland food jail! I’m so glad you’re finding my recipes helpful. Happy eating!

      • meaghan says:

        An update: per your comment, I made a quick dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, and salt which definitely helped make everything pop. I love eating them cold over a bed of crunchy romaine lettuce. Looking forward to making these again!

  • Ruby says:

    I grew up with vegetarian grape leaves as one of my favorite dishes my mom made. Thank you for giving these back to me. They’re better than I’ve ever had.

  • Laurice says:

    Can’t wait to give these a try. Am also Lebanese and husband is Italian, so having a hard time switching to paleo from a diet rich in wonderful Mediterranean flavors, cheeses, breads, and wine. We never used raisins or pine nuts in our grape leaves, nor did we use an egg sauce on top. We did often put a meat bone with little bits of meat on it in the bottom of the pot – great flavor addition. Also spiced up the rice mixture with some salt, pepper, allspice, and a dash of nutmeg; or some seven spice powder instead of the allspice and nutmeg. In addition to the lemony grape leaves, we sometimes cooked them in a thin tomato sauce, with sliced tomatoes and a meat bone on the bottom, and sliced tomatoes on the top. Could dump in a can of crushed tomatoes instead. To this we would also add lemon, although it would be more subtle. An aunt who lived in Jordan would often add a couple of hot banana peppers in the bottom of the pot. We always served grape leaves with homemade yogurt on the side to put on top as you pleased. Yum! Oh my, gotta go out back and pick some leaves now. 🙂

  • Laura says:

    I couldn’t get my hands on grape leaves, but I made the meat to the letter and it turned out delicious! It worked really well as a stuffing for

    – oven baked zucchinis

    – steamed mushrooms

  • Rachael says:

    Can you stack the dolmas in pan if your pan height allows or do you need to do one layer?

  • Dina says:

    Being of Greek and Syrian descent, I can definitely relate to this post! I remember sneaking into the fridge at night to grab a couple cold stuffed grapeleaves from the fridge, and I know *exactly* what you are talking about with the firm yet soft texture and the bit of that crack when biting into it. It has and will remain one of my favorite foods ever. I really like the idea of using cauliflower as a substitute and look forward to trying this recipe.

    My family oftentimes would line the pot first with the leaves, then a layer of lamb chops. The chops really added nice flavor and the chops ended up so soft and delicious when it was done cooking, it was sort of an extra little bonus. I usually throw in whole, unpeeled garlic cloves and add lemon towards the end of the cooking time, as to avoid it getting bitter.

    • Mel says:

      Love your story about the midnight fridge raid! And that lamb chop idea is genius, as is throwing in a few garlic cloves during the simmering process.

      Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Katie Frost says:

    Just a thought… Would cooking the cauliflower rice in a pan before adding it to the pate help with the shrinkage issue? I cannot wait to try these! I have missed stuff grape leaves so much!!!

    • Mel says:

      You could certainly try it, but I think it’s an unnecessary extra step. If you wrap them tightly, it’s not an issue at all. The only reason I mentioned it is because with traditional dolmas, you wrap them a bit loosely to allow for the rice to expand. With the cauli rice, it’s the opposite; just roll them snugly and it’s all good.

      • Katie Frost says:

        You’re totally right! The cauliflower didn’t need any precooking. I just made them this afternoon and they turned out great. Awesome recipe!

  • MamaCassi says:

    oh now i have to come back and stalk this site.

    nothing catches a greek girl’s eye like a dolmades recipe to play w/!!!!

  • Andrea says:

    My thoughts too!

  • Elaine says:

    I just got your cookbook, well fed 2, and have tried the belly dance beet salad, roasted spaghetti squash,Casablanca carrots. All have been a hit with me and my husband. My mom was from Crete, so I grew up with dolmas and was a little snobbish about what they should taste like. Was I surprised! They are wonderful! Next time I will put in more seasoning, a little more mint and maybe dill is what I miss. Also, wish you had calorie counts. But can’t wait to try the next recipe! Thanks! And the book is beautifully written with great pictures.

  • Nancy Corley says:

    These are so amazing!! I love them!

  • Gretchen Boise says:

    Pine nuts are $8, making them too expensive for me. Is there a less expensive source? Other nuts I can think of are too flavorful. Thanks you so much for the cauliflower idea, why didn’t I think of that as it is a traditional meat substitute, takes on many disguises.

  • Sherri ElGebali says:

    I totally have made these with the rice and meat with lots of herbs and spice but have since learned that my blood sugar is on the high side. (Thankfully not diabetic yet)So I want to reduce carbs to lose weight as well as glycemic index. I used ground turkey breast and a whole head of cauliflower with the rest the same. It does have a slightly different flavor but still DELISH!!!! So grateful that I saw your video and was able to adapt to my needs. I have become addicted to these little bundles of goodness so I made a ton and put some in the freezer for when I just want a few. ( HA! like a few is ever enough!!) Thanks for the healthier version.

  • Angi says:

    I am new to a ketogenic diet and just stumbled across your blog. I have always loved middle eastern food and these look totally scrumptious to me! I am super excited to try them!

  • Steve says:

    Do you think these could be cooked in a pressure cooker ?

  • Nancy says:

    Hey!! I love your cookbooks! I use them all the time. They are one of my ‘go to’ Paleo staples. I was so glad to find the Paleo grape leave recipe. I use do make them with rice before I went Paleo. These are delicious. I love lamb! My question is, can I freeze them to store them? I wan to make a double batch when I am making. But I won’t eat them all in time. Can I freeze them?
    Thank- you so much! I can’t wait for your next cook book!

    • I *think* they’ll freeze and defrost OK. I’ve never tried it. You might want to just pop one into the freezer, let it freeze, then defrost and see how the texture holds up, before you freeze an entire batch. But I’m pretty sure the cauli rice will be fine. I’m a tiny bit concerned it might get watery, but I think because it’s grated, it should be OK. Did you download the sampler PDF of the new one? Make sure you do! Happy cooking!

  • Natalie DeBusschere says:

    First, I want to thank you for helping me to love cooking again! I have loved all the delicious recipes I have tried. Second, what kind of mint should I buy? Does it matter? A friend and I were shopping together, preparing to make these together with our kids. She decided to go with spearmint and I chose peppermint. Who was right?!?!!? 😀

    • You’re both right 🙂

      Spearmint is what’s usually used in Middle Eastern cooking, and when you buy dried mint in the spice aisle of the grocery store, it’s usually spearmint.

      But when you buy fresh mint at the grocery store, it’s usually peppermint. You can see the difference in fresh leaves in this photo:×495.jpg

      They’re interchangeable in recipes, and you can use whichever flavor you prefer. Spearmint has a milder flavor (which is why it’s used more widely for drying because drying intensifies the flavor of herbs) and is a naturally-occurring herb. Peppermint is a hybrid of spearmint and wintermint and has a higher menthol content, so a sharper flavor. Fresh peppermint is great for tea: pour boiling water over the leaves and add a spoonful of honey.