Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Sarmele de post in foi de vita

"Vine leaves stuffed with rice"

When you ask most Romanians which food best represents their cuisine, the majority will probably mention sarmale in the top three. These stuffed leaves probably introduced to the region by the Ottoman Turks who governed parts of Romania for many years. They are obviously closely related to Turkish dolma and Greek dolmades. I'm not sure of the origin of the name but perhaps it came from the Turkish sarmala, meaning 'to wrap' or 'to roll up'.

The most commonly encountered type of sarmale are the pork stuffed cabbage leaves but during periods when young vine leaves (foi de vita) are plentiful these are often made instead. They can also be stuffed with meat but during post, a time when people refrain from eating animal products, they are made more simply with rice and vegetables. It's not uncommon to find sarmale de post made with mushrooms, indeed with any bountiful or seasonal vegetable. They work well as a starter, served warm with smantana (sour cream), or in larger quantities as a main course. The ultimate demonstration of sarmale-making skills is for them to turn out small and tightly wrapped.

The vine leaves can either be fresh, in which case they require blanching first to make them softer and easier to roll, or preserved in brine and then soaked to remove excess saltiness.

Time: About 3 hours
Servings: About 40 sarmale

3 tablespoons of olive or vegetable oil
1 large finely chopped onion
1 large carrot, grated
1 stick of celery, finely chopped*
1 bay leaf
2 heaped tablespoons of tomato puree
1 cup (~250g) of short grain rice
3 cups of boiling water for the rice + more for cooking the sarmale (can use stock if you like)
Chopped herbs to taste (parsley and dill)
About 40-50 vine leaves preserved in brine, left to soak in cold water for an hour or so before needed

*alternatively, you can grate some celeriac root

1. Heat the oil in a deep pan and add the chopped onion. Cook on a gentle heat until is has softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the grated onion and celery and continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes, stirring well to combine.
3. Add the cup of rice, stir into the vegetable mixture to coat the grains with oil.
4. Add one tablespoon of tomato puree and mix it into the rice and veg until it’s all well coated.
5. Allow to cook gently like that for a minute or two and then add the hot water, push the bay leaf into the mix, stir once or twice, and leave for 15-20 minutes until the rice has absorbed all the liquid and is just about soft (but don’t overcook it). From time to time check the pan to make sure it’s not drying out and sticking to the bottom, give it a gentle stir with a wooden spoon, and add some more liquid in necessary.
6. Once the rice is cooked, add the copped fresh herbs, and leave it to one side to cool.
7. Once the rice mixture is cool enough to handle, take one of the vine leaves, cut off the hard stalk at the base, lay it in front of you on a worktop, put a tablespoonful of rice mixture near the base of the leaf, fold over the lower ‘flaps’ from the bottom up, then fold in the sides over the mixture, and finally roll it up towards the point of the leaf. Repeat this process with until you are either out of leaves or out of rice. If there are any broken or torn leaves, keep them to one side. In the unlikely even of there being no torn or damaged leaves at all, keep 3 or 4 to one side – we’ll need them in the next step.
8. Take a large, deep pot and lay the reserved vine leaves on the bottom. This will help to prevent the sarmele burning. Then layer the sarmale in the pot, quite tightly and evenly packed. Finally, mix some more boiling water with the other tablespoon of tomato puree (and if you like, some more herbs - thyme is quite nice I find) and pour over the top of the sarmale until the water is about 1cm above them.
9. Cover the pot and put it on the stove on a very low heat and leave to cook for about an hour. Check in from time to time and if it’s looking really dry (i.e. the water has all boiled away) then add a drop more. After the hour is up, take off the lid and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes to reduce any remaining liquid into a sauce.
10. Serve hot with smantana.


Carolyn Blake said...

Thank you for this very nice vegetarian recipe. I am an American living in Romania and like you, I love the food. I especially have fallen for all the brilliant dairy products. The Romanians are virtuosos with milk. And then there is the jewel, mamaliga!

Romfoody said...

Hi Carolyn!

I'm going to do a post on mamaliga one day. Despite being a 'simple' dish there seems to be so many different methods of cooking it. Anyway, after the seasonal over-indulgences I'm on a diet at the moment so it'll have to wait till the spring... :(

Carolyn Blake said...

Too much cozonac? :) I find that when I stick to strictly local traditional food, whatever extra weight that seems to stubbornly accumulate when I am out of Romania, drops off naturally. With help from a native, I learned to cook mamaliga quite well. There are a couple of little secrets, especially the handmade ceaun, purchased at the local market.

Romfoody said...

Too much ale, fish and chips, and pie :) I was back in the UK for a few weeks over Christmas.

You'll have to give me some pointers when I get round to doing the mamaliga post. It'd be good to put together a few variations.

Carolyn Blake said...

I would be delighted to share what I learned about making mamaliga. Just let me know when you are ready. My Romanian home is in Barlad, Vaslui. Where are you?

Romfoody said...

Ok, I'll give you a shout when I do the mamaliga post for your version/s. I'm based in Bucharest, although I'd love to move to the countryside one day.