Romanian Sarmale....Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (a lighter version) It's been quite awhile since I last posted a Romanian recipe....I don't know why it's been so long:). Anyway, this post is about a very popular Romanian dish called sarmale. There are innumerable variations of the Romanian sarmale... and probably every Romanian household has their own recipe and method for making them. But, this is my attempt at making a lighter version of the sarmale...
Traditionally, sarmale are made with pickled cabbage, ground pork meat filling, and various herbs and spices. Now, most Romanian families have their own recipe and often make it the way they were brought up. The recipes vary from region to region... and the variations are endless. Sarmale are usually a winter dish, served around Christmas or other festive occasions. Since the pork sarmale can be quite heavy( though delicious!), I chose to do mine using ground turkey with a bit of cooked bacon for flavor. Most times, I will use ground chicken for the meat filling and even skip the bacon. I find they are just as delicious. The sarmale recipe I am posting is basically just a guide.... as it can easily be adapted according to personal preference.
Personally, I think the best sarmale are made with pickled(sour) cabbage. But since pickled cabbage isn't easy to find(or make), I like to use a quick brine to sort of "mimic" the pickled version. I also like to use some store-bought sauerkraut to provide that extra pickled flavor. For this post, I ended up using tomato paste....but sometimes, I will use tomato sauce or even fresh tomatoes. It always depends on what I have on hand. You can definitely make a vegetarian version by using mostly rice and sauteeing some onions, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, etc...and keeping the same method for stuffing, layering and cooking.
Sarmale can be served with polenta, sour cream, and sometimes hot peppers. While the sarmale taste great the day they are made, they taste even better the following day. In any case, I thought it would be nice if I would show how sarmale are made....the basics, of course:). Hope you enjoy...
Note: For those of you who would like to make your own sauerkraut cabbage leaves, you can see how to make it HERE
You will need: makes about 35-40 medium size stuffed cabbage rolls
For Cabbage: Some folks skip the brining and just simmer the cabbage in plain water....others will freeze the cabbage head and then defrost it so that the leaves wilt and are easier to roll. Feel free to use whatever method works for you.
1 head of cabbage
(I used a an ex-large (4 lb) cabbage and got enough leaves, but you many need to use 2 heads of cabbage).
15 cups water
2 TBS Kosher salt
1/2 cup vinegar
2 lbs ground turkey( or pork*, veal, beef, chicken or any combination thereof )
8 slices of bacon(definitely optional )
2 medium onions, chopped
3/4 cup short grain rice( you could use less or more)
2 TBS olive oil
1/2 cup water**
1 TBS tomato paste
2 tsps smoked paprika( you can use regular)
1 TBS fresh dill, chopped, or to taste
salt and pepper to taste
*if using the traditional pork, you can also add some smoked bacon/ham pieces to the pot
** instead of the water, you can add 1 or 2 eggs...this helps with making the filling a bit lighter in texture and not so dense.
Shredded Cabbage For Layering:
25 fl oz. sauerkraut, (preferably without preservatives, as it tastes more homemade)
1 tsp fresh dill, chopped (to be mixed with the shredded cabbage)
leftover shredded cabbage( from cabbage where leaves were used for the filling)
Liquid to cover sarmale:
3-4 TBS tomato paste mixed with 1 cup water
sauerkraut juice and/or lemon juice to taste
extra water as needed to cover cabbage rolls
2-3 bay leaves
salt* and pepper to taste
* if using sauerkraut juice, limit the amount of salt
1. Wash cabbage and cut core out.
2. Prepare cabbage brine, by placing water, salt and vinegar in a large pot( at least a 6 QT) and bring brine to a boil.
3. Lower heat to low and add head of cabbage to the brined water...removing each cabbage leaf as it wilts and placing it on a plate.
4. Continue removing most of the outer leaves...you may need to cut a bit more from the end core( as you get towards the middle of the cabbage) so that the leaves release. Try not to forcefully remove the leaves before they wilt...as they can tear on you.
5. If you are using 2 cabbages, do the same with the second cabbage. You will need about 18-20 large leaves, cut in half...to yield about 35-40 medium size rolls.
6. Place the cabbage leaves back in the brined water( with heat off) while you work on the filling.
7. Cut the middle part of the cabbage in thin strips(julienned/shredded) and set aside.
1. Cut bacon into strips and fry till almost crisp..not quite. Remove bacon from fat and set aside.
2. Remove bacon fat and discard and add 2 TBS oil along with chopped onion. Leave the bacon browned bits in the pan for flavor.
3. Saute onion till soft and golden, adding a bit of water to help release the browned bits. (Step 1 and 2 can be skipped if you don't mind the bacon fat.... just saute the onion along with the bacon).
4. Add rice and cook for a minute or so.
5. Add the tomato paste, paprika, 1/2 cup water and dill. Mix to combine.
6. Remove from heat and allow to cool a bit.
7. Season the ground meat with salt and pepper.
8. Add onion/rice mixture to ground meat and combine fully...(if not using water in step 5, you can add 1-2 beaten eggs or skip the eggs altogether:).
ASSEMBLING CABBAGE ROLLS:
1. Take each cabbage leaf and remove the tough veins. If the cabbage leaf is large, cut it in half along the middle vein.... otherwise, just cut the tough end vein and use the whole cabbage leaf.
2. Place 2 TBS( for medium size) of meat mixture at the bottom of the leaf and roll once to encase the filling.
3. Fold over one of the outer edges and finish rolling the entire length. You should still have one of the sides still open...which you can tuck in. OR simply roll the stuffed cabbage as you would a burrito.
4. If you have any leftover leaves, just cut them up and combine them with the reserved shredded cabbage that you set aside earlier( from the middle of the cabbage).
5. Add sauerkraut( I used a jar of store-bought) and dill.... combine together.
6. Place some of the combined shredded cabbage on the bottom of a large pot( at least 6 qt.) If you have a dutch oven, it would be ideal to use that. I have a regular soup pot.
7. Arrange a layer of stuffed rolls on top of the shredded cabbage and continue to do a second layer ending with shredded cabbage on top. Place bay leaves on top and extra dill to taste.
8. Combine the tomato paste with about 1 cup of water and pour over the entire surface. Add some sauerkraut juice( from the jar...only if it is w/o preservatives) and pour it over the entire surface. Add enough water to barely cover the stuffed rolls. ( If using sauerkraut juice which can be quite salty, you may not need to add anymore salt..if using lemon juice to sour the rolls, you will need to add some salt. I usually add a bit of lemon juice as well... even when using sauerkraut juice)
9. Cover pot and cook on low for 2-3 hours...adding a bit more water if needed towards the last hour of cooking. You can then uncover and bake for about 30 minutes at 350 or so...though baking is optional.
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You can also cook the stuffed cabbage rolls entirely using any one of the methods below:
a) stove top
b) in the oven
c) slow cooker
d)pressure cooker( about 40 minutes or so)...my favorite as of late(much quicker and very tasty).
Serve with polenta, a dollop or two of sour cream, and maybe some hot pepper.