Taste of Romania -- Sarmale

I think it's long past time for me to share some Romanian recipes. I should give a disclaimer that I'm not an expert cook, even in America, so I'm really a novice when it comes to the local cuisine. I am, however, quite talented when it comes to the eating part! ;) So as I learn how to cook new foods, especially my favorite dishes, I'll try to Americanize the recipes and share.

Today's lesson: sarmale. Say sar-MAH-leh. (Sar as in "sorry," mah as in "mama," leh as in... ?) These are delicious little cabbage leaves stuffed with seasoned meat and rice, the second course in a traditional Romanian meal. First would be chicken noodle soup, then sarmale, followed by schnitzel and potatoes with salad, then dessert. (We'll talk about the other courses another time.)

Depending on where you live, you may or not be able to find ground pork at the grocery store. I had to go to a store with its own butcher, explain to him what I was trying to cook, and he agreed to grind some pork for me in exchange for the recipe. I'm sure his wife really appreciated that! If you can't find a butcher as friendly and helpful as the one at Piggly Wiggly (oh, Georgia), you can substitute ground turkey or beef. If you want to be authentic, though, it has to be pork.

There are two ways to cook the sarmale -- in the oven or on the stove. I personally think they taste better when baked, especially in a traditional clay pot. If you have a pot or deep dish that is oven-safe, I recommend this method. If not, you can cook them on the stove using a medium-sized soup pot.

Mariana’s Sarmale

2 lbs ground pork
1 large onion
5 heaping tbsp rice (uncooked)
2 tsp paprika
2 large (American) heads cabbage
2 bay leaves
1 can chopped tomatoes

Cook onions over medium heat until transparent. Add salt, pepper, and paprika. Add rice to pan and turn off heat. When onion mixture has cooled, add to meat and knead together by hand until well-blended. (You can also use this filling for stuffed peppers!)

Boil 5 liters lightly-salted water in a large pot. Add 1/2 cup vinegar. Cut heart from cabbage, then put cabbage in water. Boil until leaves begin to separate, and pull them apart gently with a fork. Remove cabbage when leaves are tender but not yet limp.

Tear or cut each large cabbage leaf in half, removing stem. Slice smallest or damaged pieces and use to completely cover bottom of pot. On top of cabbage layer, put 1-2 slices of bacon, 1 can chopped tomatoes (reserve 1/3 can of juice and a few tomato pieces), and bay leaves.

Wrap sarmale by holding a leaf in one hand (or on a flat surface) and adding a spoonful of meat about 1 inch from the base end of the leaf. Roll as you would a burrito, tucking in the ends to close the roll. If the roll is difficult to close, you may have too much meat.

Set rolls on end in the bottom of the pot. When you run out of space, add a thin layer of leftover sliced cabbage leaves, then start stacking another layer of rolls. If you don’t have enough to make a complete second layer, stack rolls around the edges and fill in the center space with cabbage remnants. Top with another layer of cabbage and 1-2 slices of bacon. Mix reserved tomato juice with cold water and pour over sarmale until water is even with the top of the rolls.

Stovetop: Boil on medium for 1 hour, then simmer on low until done.
Oven: Bake at 400 F for 1 hour, then at 215 F for 1-2 hours.
*When you think they’re about done, carefully remove a roll and cut it open to make sure the filling is cooked.

Sarmale rolls are usually removed from the pot to be served. Refrigerate leftovers for 3-4 days and reheat in the microwave.

Pofta buna! (Good appetite!)

My lovely assistant, Emily, helped me make sarmale while I was home last summer.

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