I could easily say that Christmas is my favorite holiday. We get together with the family, we decorate the tree, we give and receive gifts, and most importantly, we eat a lot! And let me tell you – Romanians love to enjoy a “big feast” especially during such an important holiday. In addition, since most Romanians belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church, we prepare special dishes on religious holidays. And when it’s Christmas time, the main ingredient on our table is pork.
Shortly before Christmas, we take part in an old traditional ceremony, which starts with the slaughter of a pig. We roast the pig, and then we prepare special dishes from all parts of the animal, including sausages, black pudding, ham, smoked bacon, and pig’s trotters. And we shall not forget the crispy pig ears and pig’s tail, which I always loved as a kid. Although, it doesn’t sound too appetizing, I was always thrilled to take part in this ceremony!
Besides pork dishes, stuffed cabbage is always present on the Christmas table. Sarmale (stuffed cabbage) are an essential component of the Christmas feast. While they are a special treat for Christmas dinner, Romanians make sarmale all the time because they are delicious, hearty, and fully-satisfying. It may seem intimidating, but stuffed cabbage is not difficult to prepare. However, it can be time-consuming. That’s why I like to make a big pot of sarmale during the weekend when I’m not rushed. This way, we have a lot of food for the entire week, and the sarmale taste even better reheated. So, the time spent preparing them over the weekend is well worth it!
Sarmale – Stuffed Cabbage
By Simply Romanesco inspired by my Grandma Vicki
Serves: About 30 rolls of stuffed cabbage
· 2 heads of green cabbage (about 2 pounds each)
· 2 pounds ground pork (or 1 pound ground pork and 1 pound ground beef)
· 2 medium yellow onions, chopped
· 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
· 1 heaped teaspoon paprika
· 1 cup (250 grams) long grain rice
· 1 teaspoon fresh dill, plus a whole bunch
· 1 teaspoon dried thyme
· ½ teaspoon dried oregano
· 2 teaspoons black pepper
· 1 Tablespoon salt
· 1 egg
· 2 bay leaves
· 2 (15 ounce) cans of tomato sauce
· 2 ¼ cups (500 ml) water
· Sour cream (optional)
Using a sharp knife, cut out the hard core of each cabbage. Wash the cabbage well.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add 2 teaspoons of salt to the water. When the water is boiling blanch the head of cabbage to soften the leaves. Blanch the head of cabbage in boiling water for about 8-10 minutes or until you can remove each leaf. Do the same with the second head of cabbage.
Peel off the leaves from the heads of cabbage. Use only the larger leaves and not the small ones closer to the core of the cabbage. Take each leaf and blanch it in boiling water for a few seconds until each leaf is soft enough to handle easily. Trim the nervures – the one down the center of each leaf – so that you can roll the leaf without the leaf breaking. Set aside as many cabbage leaves as you want. Each leaf will be a cabbage roll. Do not throw away the extra leaves, which were not used for cabbage rolls.
In a small saucepan, heat 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat and cook the onions with a pinch of salt until translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add the paprika and stir. Set aside to cool.
Put the ground meat in a large bowl. Add the rice, fresh dill, dried thyme, dried oregano, salt, pepper, egg, and the cooled onions and paprika mixture. Combine everything together very well with clean hands until you have a sticky mixture.
Take one cabbage leaf in your palm with the base of the leaf at your wrist. With your other hand, center about 1 Tablespoon (or less depending on the size of the leaf) of the meat mixture on the leaf near the base of the leaf. Cover with one side of the leaf, roll the leaf around the meat, and tuck the other side in so as to seal the cabbage roll. Continue with the other leaves. Make sure that the rolls are tight enough so that they do not fall apart.
Slice the extra cabbage leaves and place them to cover the bottom of a large pot. Arrange the cabbage rolls in a circle in the pan over the shredded cabbage. Cover the entire bottom of the pot with cabbage rolls. Add a bay leaf and fresh dill leaves. Continue with the next layer of cabbage rolls. Add another bay leaf and dill. When the pot is almost full – or you are out of cabbage rolls, cover the top layer of cabbage rolls with shredded cabbage.
In a small saucepan, mix the tomato sauce, water and half a teaspoon of salt. Stir and bring the mixture to a boil. When the mixture starts to boil, pour it over the stuffed cabbage.
Bring the stuffed cabbage to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover with a lid and simmer for about 1 ½ - 2 hours. After 90 minutes take out a cabbage roll and taste it to see if the rice, meat and cabbage are cooked through. Serve the stuffed cabbage hot with a dollop of sour cream on top.
When I was young, I loved watching Grandma Vicki prepare sarmale. Until not long ago, I was afraid to make this traditional Romanian dish on my own. Now, I make a big pot of sarmale once a month. They are so flavorful that sometimes I find myself eating four or five at a time. Once you’ve tried one, it’ll be difficult to stop. Poftă Bună! (Bon Appétit!)