If you ever get to visit Romania, city or countryside, north or south, you will always be served a dish of stuffed pickled cabbage leaves, rolled around delicious beef and pork mince meat, and baked on a bed of stewed shredded cabbage, with tomato sauce and rosemary. It is usually served with polenta, to soak up all those wonderful juices and cooled by sour cream with horseradish.
It is our national dish, and its uniqueness comes from the pickled cabbage leaves and the use of borsch – the fermented wheat bran juice.
Needless to say how surprised I was when reading a history of British puddings -sweet and savoury- to find a recipe for Cabbage Pudding from the 18th century. The author, Regula Ysewijn (Pride and Pudding), found it mentioned in 1737, and in 1788, where veal was used together with bacon, boiled egg, nutmeg, anchovies, and mushrooms.
Although you find this dish all around eastern Europe, Russia and the Central Asian countries, it has Turkish origins: ‘sarmak’ meaning parcel or roll. In countries with strong horticultural traditions, stuffed vegetables are a common dish on the kitchen table.
There are as many variations of the sarmale, as there are regions in Romania. The leaves we roll the meat in can vary from vine leaves to lime tree or sorel leaves. Then we use rice or millet in the meat stuffing. The meat can be beef, pork, both, smoked or unsmoked, and even fish. There is a vegetarian version with sticky rice and sultanas. The pot is sometimes a whole huge pumpkin filled with all the cabbage rolls and put in the oven. The shape is traditionally oblong, but there is a recipe called the Monastic Sarmale that makes round shapes.
Sarmale is a dish for Christmas dinner. We don’t usually make them at home outside of the religious celebrations: Christmas and Easter. As with everything else when it comes to cooking, it is a family affair: dad is in charge of choosing the right pickled cabbages from the wooden barrels we keep them in; mum is preparing the stuffing; and then we all get rolling! Some families make up to 400 rolls in one day, ready for the big dinner. It is a lengthy process, but a lot of fun, and the results are delicious to eat.
This is how you make the Romanian sarmale:
For the pickled cabbage: the easiest way is to buy them from a Polish shop. They will be already cut to the required size, and all the leaves are in really good shape – no holes or too thin.
For the filling:
400g mince beef
400g mince pork
200 smoked pancetta
5 cloves of garlic
2 chopped tomatoes tins
250ml pork stock
2tbs oil (not olive oil)
1/2 bunch rosemary, finely chopped
1/2 bunch tarragon, finely chopped
1 sour cream pot or yogurt – to serve
For cooking: 1 small white cabbage
For the polenta, follow this recipe, but omit the mushrooms.
Make the filling: heat the oil in a frying pan and sweat the onion. Add the chopped garlic, rice and pancetta, and fry together quickly for 4-5 minutes, then set aside. In a bowl, mix together the meat, then add the mixture from the pan, and the herbs. Mix well, until we’ll incorporated.
Roll the stuffed cabbage: take one cabbage leaf and cut in half. Take a spoonful of the mixture (or less depending on how big you’d like the rolls) and place it at the edge of the leaf. Roll tightly, tucking in the edges as you go along. Set aside on a plate. Repeat with the other half, and until you use up all the leaves.
Assemble for the oven: Shred the white cabbage. In a deep oven pan, or Staub/Le Creuset/Dutch oven, put a layer of the shredded cabbage. Place one layer of the stuffed rolls, then a thin layer of shredded cabbage, and another layer of rolls. You can press on them (gently) if you’d like. Finish with a layer of shredded cabbage.
Pour the chopped tomatoes on top and the pork stock.
Place in the oven at 170C for 4 hours. However, every now and then (I do it every 1:30 hours) take the pot out, put it on a heatproof surface, and holding by the handles, rotate a few times. The purpose of this is to substitute any stirring, that could damage the rolls.
Serve next to polenta, add yoghurt or sour cream on top. I also eat them with pickled chillies.
PS: if you’d like to buy Pride and Pudding book, have a look here. It is not just a cookery book, it’s the history of a very British culinary tradition. If you like the illustrations in the book, order them from the artist directly here. This is not advertising, I just think that the book and its ‘makers’ deserve a lot of praise.