Monday, 5 December 2016

Sarmale in foi de varza

"Meat-stuffed cabbage rolls"

Although I haven’t posted many recipes recently, partly because most of the ones I know or like I’ve already posted, but also due to a lack of time and other project, I’ve always felt this blog is incomplete with having at least one recipe for sarmale (and perhaps another for cozonac). So, with Christmas coming up I figured it was time to have a go at them. Why not give them a try and make that Romanian in your life extremely happy!

Sarmale form a staple part of Romanian festive cuisine. These meat-stuffed cabbage rolls will almost certainly grace any seasonal feast, be it Christmas or Easter or even other celebrations, such as weddings, baptisms or birthdays. Their origin is most likely Turkish, ‘sarmak’ is the Turkish verb for ‘roll up’ after all, but over time they’ve been adapted to Romanian tastes with the addition of pork. They are relatively easy to make, although cooking takes some time (2-3 hours), but they can be made in advance, reheated (apparently making them taste better) or even frozen (so I’m told).

Time: 30 minutes for prep, then 2-3 in the oven with occasional checking
Servings: Makes about 20-25 sarmale (depending how big or small you make them), enough for 4-5 hungry Romanians.

About 600g of meat (pork, or a mixture of pork and beef, according to your preference)
Some smoked meat, such as ‘slanina afumata’ (smoked pork fat) or smoky bacon will do
About a cup of rice (any type really, I actually used pilaf as it’s what I had in the cupboard, but the short-grain stuff is more usual I believe)
2 large onions, finely chopped
Thyme, a couple of sprigs is good between the layers of sarmale, but you can use dried thyme out of season
Paprika, if you so desire. Most recipes don’t seem to use it, but I like this addition
2-3 bay leaves
A jug of tomato bullion, or a mixture of warm water and good tomato concentrate
Salt and pepper to taste


1. Finely chop the two onions and sauté gently in a large pan with a splash of oil (of whatever type) until softened. Don’t fry them or they’ll turn bitter.
2. Add some finely chopped smoked meat to the onions at this stage too (if you like, not every recipe includes it) and continue cooking for a couple of minutes.
3. Turn the heat off, allow to cool a bit, and add the minced meat, rice and some of the spices and mix it all together well. Add a little seasoning.
4. Take the pickled cabbage leaves, cut out any hard parts of the stalk that’d make them difficult to roll, and cut (if they’re large leaves) in two.
5. Once you’ve sorted out the leaves which are good for rolling, finely chop the discarded parts and put a layer of these chopped pieces into the cooking vessel to form a barrier between the bottom of the pot and the first row of sarmale – this’ll help prevent burning.
6. Take a walnut-sized piece of the meat mixture, form it into a sausage shape, place it on the cabbage leaf, start to roll it up. About one half-rotation in, fold the sides of the leaf over and continue rolling to get a reasonably tight package. Place this in the pot on top of the chopped cabbage.
7. Continue this process until you have a complete layer, onto which you can place some more of the smoked meat, some sprigs of thyme, other spices (like the bay or paprika, if you so wish), and maybe more of the chopped cabbage to fill any large gaps.
8. Continue making layers in this way until you’re almost at the top of the pot, or you run out of ingredients, whichever comes first. Allow a little space at the top for expansion (you’ve added rice, remember, so they’ll puff up a bit).
9. Pour on the seasons tomato bullion so it soaks in between the tightly-packed sarmale and reaches the level of the top layer. You shouldn’t need too much if they’re well packed in the vessel. Finish it all off with a layer of whole cabbage leaves on top, just two of three to cap it off.
10. Put on the lid and either put it in the oven on a low heat for 3 hours or until cooked (after a couple of hours you can pull one out to test it) or cook it gently on the stove, being careful to check the bottom isn’t burning (hence the layer of chopped cabbage). If it looks like the sauce is running out, add a little more bullion or water to keep the sarmale moist.
11. Once you feel the meat and rice is well cooked, take them out and serve with mamaliga (polenta) and smantana (sour cream).

Pofta mare!


San Francisco Honda said...

Hi, are you supposed to cook the rice first? Thanks!

Romfoody said...

Hi. No, it goes in dry. It'll absorb the bullion stock whilst in the oven. Also, as the rice swells, it makes the sarmale firmer. Enjoy!

Susan Blackmore said...

My family makes a version of this meal at holidays. We wrap the sausage/beef/rice rolls in blanched cabbage, and cook the rolls in sauerkraut. We serve it with mashed potatoes. We also layer bacon and season with thyme and paprika. We have always called it, “galusta,” so I’m curious about that. My grandfather was Romanian, and my grandmother is Lithuanian. I wonder if he tweaked the traditional sarmale recipe and decided to rename it? Have you ever heard of cabbage rolls being prepared this way?

Romfoody said...

Hi Susan. Your recipe sounds pretty traditional; adding the bacon, thyme and paprika is quite common. It's just the name 'galusta' that is different. 'Galuste' (pl) are usually doughy balls, like dumplings, that are typically boiled in soups. There is also a dessert made from a potato dough (imagine gnocchi dough) wrapped around a plum called 'galuste cu prune'. Perhaps the names of the dishes were switched or mis-remembered somewhere along the way?