Sarmale | Smoked Romanian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Sarmale is one of my favorite Romanian recipes for the winter season. The flavor is a delicious combination of smoky, meaty, sweet, and sour. The preparation is a bit tedious, but once done you'll enjoy fabulous feasts for the next few days.

 - To soften the cabbage leaves (if needed): 12 cups water, half a cup of vinegar, and two tablespoons of salt
 - One cup of raw rice
 - Two pounds of ground pork
 - One squash (peeled, then shredded)
 - Half of a big red pepper (or an entire smaller one)
 - One cup of baby carrots
 - One onion
 - One clove of garlic
 - Three tablespoons of spice mix: salt, pepper, chili pepper, thyme, paprika, in equal quantities
 - Four tablespoons of cooking oil
 - One can of tomato sauce
 - About two pounds of sauerkraut
 - One cup fresh dill (chopped)
 - A bulky piece of smoked bacon (about one pound)

 - Here's an overview of the process. First, we need to soften the cabbage leaves (you'd want to skip this if you're lucky enough to get whole pickled cabbage leaves). We'll then prepare a meaty mixture and roll it in the leaves. Traditionally, this stuffing uses fatty pork meat - the fattiness makes the sarmale tender and soft. Here, I describe a healthier alternative that's easier to procure: use regular ground pork meat, but mix it with shredded squash. Finally, baking will allow all the flavors to blend in nicely.
 - Let's start with softening the cabbage leaves. Take a cabbage head, and cut the core out with a sharp knife. Mix 12 cups of water, half a cup of vinegar, and 2 tablespoons of salt, and bring to a boil. Pour the boiling mixture over the cored cabbage - you'll notice it open up like a blossoming flower. Gently remove the leaves one by one, and avoid tears and ruptures. Leave them in the hot brine a bit longer, until they become soft and pliable.
 - We'll need three cups of boiled rice. I like to prepare that myself, with a twist: mix one cup of water with one cup of sauerkraut brine, and bring to a boil. Rinse one cup of rice separately, then add it to the boiling mixture, cover, reduce the heat to low, and keep on cooking for 20 minutes (don't remove the lid). Note that the rice expands while cooking (it grows about three times its original size), so use a pan big enough to accommodate this quantity. When ready, stir in the rice with a fork to increase its fluffiness. Let it cool.
 - Meanwhile, dice the red pepper, carrots, onion, and garlic. Place them in a pan with oil, and cook for 15 minutes on medium heat. Let cool as well.
 - We're now ready to prepare the stuffing. In a large bowl, mix together the ground pork, the shredded squash, the rice, and the veggie mixture cooked earlier in the pan. Add the spices, olive oil, one cup of pureed tomatoes, and the chopped dill. Mix thoroughly.
 - With the stuffing ready, let's talk about putting together the sarmale (each one needs to be rolled individually, which will take some time). Take a leave of cabbage (cut it in half if it's too big), place two tablespoons of mixture in the center, and roll: fold one of the longer sides over the meat, then roll across the longer side, then stuff the remaining side in.
 - Take a big pot and add a bit of cooking oil. Then place a thin layer of sauerkraut to make sure that none of the sarmale sticks to the bottom. Carefully place a layer of sarmale, with a few chunks of smoked bacon interleaved and a couple of bay leaves. Make sure they're tightly packed - we don't want much space in between.  Top with a thin layer of pureed tomatoes. And repeat until the pot is full (or until you run out of sarmale) - another layer of sauerkraut, followed by one more layer of sarmale and a few chunks of smoked bacon (plus one or two bay leaves) , then one thin layer of pureed tomatoes. When finished, top everything with layer of sauerkraut.
 - Add two or three cups of water (depending on how tightly you placed everything in the pot).  We want the sarmale to cook in water and become tender and moist.  Bake in the over at 400F for two hours.

 - Serve the sarmale hot or warm.
 - The dish goes well with sour cream, chili peppers (fresh or pickled), and polenta. They all add a bit of color to the presentation.
 - Enjoy sarmale with a cold beer, and with great company.

1 comment:

  1. I made your sarmale recipe today and wanted to let you know that they were awesome 👏
    the squash really kept the meat nice and soft. And putting some sour kraut juice in the rice was a great idea! Ty for sharing your recipe. I especially liked cooking the whole pot in the oven instead of having to keep such a close eye on them on the stove top. Again ty