My boyfriend has begged me, on behalf of his waistline, to cease and desist with the dessert frenzy on Sundays. I agreed that, perhaps, I got a little carried away.
So, instead, I’m going on a Romanian cooking spree for a little while, partially because I like Romanian cooking when it’s cold outside, and partially because I think he’s been missing the taste of home.
So, today I decided to make sarmale. These are either stuffed cabbage or stuffed vine leaves, and many traditional cuisines have their own variation on this dish, including Russia, Turkey, Greece, and Serbia. Even within Romania different regions make them differently, but I will be sharing the variation that I encountered in the Moldavia region.
To make 25 – 30 sarmale, you will need
1 package of preserved vine leaves OR 1 smooth white cabbage
700 gr rice, parboiled or similar
500gr of minced meat, pork and beef mix
2 small carrots
1/2 small red bell pepper
100gr of tomato paste
100mL of olive oil, optional*
2 large handfuls of cimbru, or dried thyme/sage mix
150gr cubed bacon, optional
1 can (for vine leavea) or 3 cans (for cabbage) of chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper, to taste
sour cream, to serve
*If you want to make a less fatty version of sarmale, or if you have a fattier mince, you do not need to add oil. However, if your rice is starchy, not adding the oil will make for dry sarmale. If you don’t want to add oil, make sure you use a long grain rice or whichever variation that is not full of starch.
If you use vine leaves (which I did, as I prefer them), soak them in fresh water to get rid of the preservative taste before use. If you choose to use cabbage, boil the whole cabbage leaves until they are tender enough to wrap around your finger, and set them aside to cool in cold water.
Mince the vegetables as finely as possible, and then mix them together with the minced meat, the rice, the spices, the tomato puree and the olive oil, until you get a nice homogeneous mixture. Be generous with the salt and pepper, as you have the rice to flavor in there.
Place the leaf, veins up, on the palm of your hand. With your other hand, add a sausage of rice/meat mixture, leaving a couple of centimeters free on each side. With a little practice, you start to get the hang of how big to make your sausage.
Wrap the edges of the leaf that are on your fingers over the sausage
Then roll the sausage to the end of the leaf, and tuck in the edges. If you roll it too tight, you might split the leaf when you tuck in the edges, but you want the final package to be as tight as possible. This also takes a couple of tries before you get the hang of it, but in the end it should look like this
Place them side by side in a pot, with the tip of the leaf side down. They should be quite close together, and you will get layers of sarmale. Between the layers, add the cubed bacon (if using) and some chopped tomatoes. In the end, you should have them reach almost the top of the pot. You can also use a slow cooker, which I did in this case.
Now you need to add water. How much will depend on whether you are using a slow cooker, and what kind of rice you used. In a regular pot, I usually add water until it reaches half-way up the top layer of sarmale. In a slow cooker, I’ll add half of that, as there is no evaporation. In either case, you want to check on them half way through the cooking, as you want enough water to cook the rice, but not so much that you end up boiling the sarmale and spoon out a bunch of mash in the end. You can always add more, so be stingy on the water at the beginning.
Cover the top with some extra leaves, add the lid and start cooking. In the pot, you want to put them on a very low heat for about 1 – 1 1/2 hours. In the slow cooker, place on high for 6 hours. The slow cooker takes longer (obviously), but it makes the rice less starchy and thus you get less dried out sarmale, so if you’re not using oil, the slow cooker might be your better option.
In the end, serve warm and dip them in sour cream.
I made enough sarmale to feed and army, mostly because I tend to do this when I’m making things that take a lot of work, but you’ll be happy to know that they freeze well after cooking too, so doubling the recipe is not unreasonable if you like them, and you can have a ready made lunch for weeks after all this work.
So, that’s my first Romanian recipe for the month. I’ll be making November Romanian month, and I’ll be taking requests for the month of December, if any of you have any, for which country’s cuisine we can explore next.