I am ashamed for taking such a long time to post this recipe on my blog. If I want to show you my traditions and heritage through food, this recipe is a must! As we are going through holidays and this recipe is the most traditional one for Christmas and New Year in Romania, I have to share it with you!
Many countries eat stuffed cabbage rolls, but I think it is more prominent in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. We make them with fresh cabbage in the summer or with pickled cabbage (sauerkraut) in the winter. This recipe is an authentic traditional Romanian one and it is truly the way my grandma and my mom used to make it.
There are different versions around Romania, due to the fact that each region of the country has a different cuisine or different influences. Romanians eat more pork than beef, and the traditional stuffed cabbage rolls are made with ground pork, especially in the winter and around Christmas time. However, you can also make them only with ground beef or a mixture of 50-50 pork and beef.
They become tastier after few days, for some reason, so majority of Romanians when cook them, will always make a million of them. 🙂 My grandmother, for example, took pride on telling us how many cabbage rolls she made, and there were never less than a hundred!
The Romanian stuffed cabbage rolls or “sarmale” are a must at any important event. There is no Romanian Christmas without “Sarmale” and you will notice that any Romanian living abroad will tell you about them. We tend to keep ourselves rooted in our own culture through food, so cabbage rolls are very important to us. We make them for weddings, funerals, and any other important occasions.
We love them and we will make them for friends and family when we live abroad. It is our heritage and tradition and we are very proud of it!
This recipe is made with cabbage that was preserved in salt and water, or sauerkraut. I grew up with preserved, pickled cabbage in winter. It was an important food item on the table together with other vegetables my parents canned in the summer.
The food was scarce and if you did not can in the summer, you did not have anything to eat in the winter. So, my parents used to buy around 50 kg(about 110 pounds) of cabbage in October and preserved it in a big barrel we kept on the balcony, in our little communist apartment in Bucharest, back in the 70-80’s.
The cabbage was enough to feed all 4 of us during the cold months of winter. My mom made stuffed cabbage rolls, salads, soups and other things with it. It was the perfect food.
For the ones living in US, you can find pickled cabbage either in jars, like this one :
or like this one here. Personally, I use what I can find around. I know that a lot of stores carry pickled whole cabbage, otherwise, ordering online is another option.
These being said, let’s try to make the cabbage rolls. I cut the cabbage in two and separated the leaves from the core. You will need to prepare the leaves before you do anything.
It will save time when you start stuffing and rolling the cabbage leaves. On each leaf, I removed the thick part that connects it to the cabbage core. Something like this:
This step makes the leaves more pliable. After I finished cleaning all the leaves, I set them aside. Do not throw away the parts your removed from the leaves. You can slice them thin and add them in between the cabbage rolls. Also, you can use them on the bottom of the pot before you start adding the cabbage rolls.
Time to prepare the meat. The Romanian cabbage rolls have a combination of meat, rice, onion and spices inside, so you will need rice, onion, pepper, thyme, marjoram, and some bay leaves.
I mixed everything together and obtained a paste. Set that aside too. No, we do not cook the rice, onion or meat before we stuff the cabbage leaves.
To make the stuffed cabbage rolls :
Lay a cabbage leaf on the table and put a small amount of the meat mixture on one side of the leaf.
Wrap the meat inside the cabbage leaf.
You will need to close the edges of the leaf so the meat doesn’t come out when it cooks.
In a pot ( in my case a clay pot I use for the stuffed cabbage rolls),
slice some cabbage and spread on the bottom of the pot. The cabbage will create a cushion and keep the rolls from sticking to the bottom. Optional you can add some bacon in between the rolls for flavor, but this is only your choice. I love the smoked flavored of bacon in between.
Then start adding the cabbage rolls one by one.
Continue rolling until you finish the meat and the cabbage leaves. If you have leftover cabbage leaves, just slice them in thin pieces and cover the stuffed cabbage rolls with them.
At this point, add more pieces of uncooked bacon(optional) and bay leaves.
Also add tomato paste, or tomato juice.
And water to cover them. I added some more thyme and made sure they have enough water to simmer in the pot for about 2 hours. The meat and rice need to cook through.
I covered the pot with the lid and put it in the oven at 350F for about 2 hours.
I removed the lid and let the stuffed cabbage rolls bake to get a golden crust, for another 2 hours. If you notice the water evaporated and there is no liquid left, add a little bit more water but make sure to not fill up the pot again.
They get better after a day or two, if you have leftovers. Enjoy!
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- Prepare a big bowl for the meat mixture.
- Add to the bowl ground meat, onion, rice and spices except bay leaves.
- Set aside.
- Prepare the cabbage leaves by removing the core and the thick part of each leaf.
- Grab a cabbage leaf and place 1 tbsp of meat on it. Wrap the meat inside the cabbage leaf to obtain a neat roll.
- Place shredded cabbage on the bottom of the pot, then start adding the rolls.
- Optional, you can add a layer of bacon over each layer of rolls.
- Fill up the pot with cabbage rolls, then mix together the tomato juice and the paste and pour it over the rolls.
- Add water to cover them.
- The final layer should be shredded cabbage.(use left over cabbage)
- Sprinkle more bacon, thyme and bay leaves and cover with a lid.
- Introduce the pot in the oven at 350F for 2 hours.
- After 2 hours remove the lid and let the cabbage rolls bake for another 30 minutes. You might notice the water evaporated, so you can add a little bit more, but do not fill up the pot again.
- Serve them warm with a dollop of sour cream on top, fresh bread or polenta and hot peppers.