These Sarmale (Romanian Cabbage Rolls) are made with sour cabbage and stuffed with a delicious combination of meat, rice, herbs and seasonings. Like most Romanian delicacies, every family puts their own little twist on Sarmale. This recipe comes courtesy of my father-in-law and having eaten sarmale all over Romania, I can honestly say that they’re my favourite.
They’re juicy and delicious in the middle, tender on the outside and have just the right amount of sour flavour from the cabbage. Serve them with a big dollop of sour cream and some Mamaliga (polenta) on the side for a traditional Romanian Christmas or New Year’s celebration.
What You Need For Sarmale
- Sour Cabbage: One of the main things that separates Sarmale or other Balkan-style cabbage rolls is the fact that they’re made with sour or fermented cabbage, as opposed to fresh, boiled or steamed cabbage. You can find whole, pacakged, sour cabbages in some major grocery stores (such as Metro or Coppa’s in the GTA), but your best bet is to visit a local Eastern European market (such as Yummy Market or ABC Euro Delicatessen in the GTA). In Romania, as well as other European countries, sour cabbages are often prepared at home or can be purchased at a local farmer’s market.
- Ground Meat: My father-in-law typically combines equal parts ground pork and lean ground beef to make sarmale. The pork adds a lot of flavour and fat, while the beef gives a better texture. You can, of course, make sarmale with just beef, just pork or even ground turkey, if desired.
- Rice: You can use any variety of short-grain white rice here, but my advice is use one that is neutral-flavoured, such as arborio, as opposed to Jasmine, which will change the flavour of the dish. In Romania, some packages of rice are even labeled as “Sarmale”, indicating the intended use. Rice is commonly added to make the filling a bit softer in texture and help hold it together as it cooks. It also makes the sarmale more filling so you don’t need to use as much meat, which is more expensive.
You can, of course, make sarmale without rice if you want to keep this recipe both Paleo and Whole30-friendly. The stuffing will still hold together, but it will have a slightly chewier texture.
- Aromatics: A combination of onion, carrot and parsley root form the flavour base for the sarmale filling. My father-in-law always grates the carrot and parsley root very finely so that they almost melt away as the cabbage rolls cook. If you can’t find parsley root, you can substitute parsnip.
- Tomato: One thing my father-in-law does a bit differently from others is he sautées diced tomato in the pan along with the aromatics. He also flavours the filling with a combination of tomato paste and water, which is more concentrated in flavour than tomato puree or passata.
- Egg: If you have an allergy or aversion in the family you can make these sarmale without egg. They will still come out great. The egg just acts as a binder to help hold the filling together.
- Fresh Herbs: Finely chopped fresh parsley and dill add a lot of flavour and colour to the filling. Feel free to use equal parts of each, or as much or little as your heart desires.
- Paprika: Mostly for colour, and a little bit of flavour, paprikas is added to the filling. For even more flavour, try substituting smoked paprika!
- Smoked Bacon: In Romania, smoked pork ribs or pieces of pork hock are added to the pot to help flavour the sarmale around Christmas time. In Toronto, these aren’t as common so my father-in-law often substitutes slices of smoked bacon.
- Sour Cream: I hate to say it, but sarmale taste way better when served with a big dollop of sour cream.
Sarmale (Romanian Cabbage Rolls)
- 1 tablespoon avocado oil
- 1 medium red onion diced
- 2 medium carrots peeled and finely grated
- 1 large parsley root peeled and finely grated, substitute parsnip
- 2 large tomatoes diced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2/3 cups water plus extra as needed
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 1 and 1/3 cups white rice rinsed and drained
- 1 large egg
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped dill
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt plus extra to taste
- ¼ teaspoon freshly-cracked black pepper plus extra to taste
- 1 large head sour or fermented cabbage such as St. Jacob’s brand
- 8 ounces smoked bacon sliced into large pieces
- Sour cream for serving
- Preheat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the avocado oil and heat until shimmering. Add the onions and season with a small pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, around 8 minutes. Add the carrot, parsley root and tomato and cook, stirring, until soft, around 12 minutes. In a bowl, combine 2/3 cups water with the tomato paste and stir until mixed. Add the liquid to the pan and cook, stirring and scraping up any brown bits off the bottom, until combined, around 2 minutes. Add the mixture to a large mixing bowl, set aside and let cool.
- Once the mixture has cooled, add the pork, beef, rice, egg, parsley, dill, paprika, salt and pepper. Using your hands or a spatula, mix until well combined.
- Drain the cabbage and reserve the liquid for drinking if desired. Keeping them whole, separate the cabbage leaves, rinse them under cold water and let drain. Using a sharp knife, cut off the rib from each cabbage leaf and cut the large leaves into 3 equal, triangular pieces (like pizza slices). Smaller cabbage leaves can be left whole or cut into 2 equal pieces. Reserve all of the trimmed cabbage ribs and core and roughly chop them.
- Add a small amount of filling to each leaf, roll it like a cigar and push in the ends so they overlap and keep the filling inside (see video). Arrange the cabbage rolls in a single layer on a sheet pan as you prepare the rest.
- When ready to cook, scatter half of the chopped cabbage trimmings on the bottom of a large stock pot or Dutch oven. Arrange a single layer of cabbage rolls and scatter a thin layer of bacon overtop. Arrange another layer of cabbage rolls and bacon and repeat until all of the cabbage rolls and bacon are in the pot. Top with the remaining half of the chopped cabbage trimmings. Add enough cold water to just barely cover the top layer of cabbage and place an inverted porcelain plate on top to weigh them down.
- Place the pot over high heat and bring the liquid to a boil, then quickly lower the heat to a steady simmer. Cover partially with a lid and cook, adding more hot water to the pot as needed, until the cabbage rolls are fork-tender, around 2 hours.
- Transfer the cabbage rolls to a serving platter and serve with sour cream.