Until visiting Romania, I thought I knew cabbage rolls. Growing up in Alberta, a Canadian province with a large Ukrainian population, cabbage rolls were a staple in my diet. And as a result, I had a fairly good grasp on what made a good cabbage roll. Yet this post isn’t about the cabbage rolls we grew up with. No, this is far more exciting. This is a Sarmale recipe.
While we were exploring the Maramures region of Romania, we had our first encounter with Romanian-style cabbage rolls. Known locally as Sarmale, this traditional Romanian food blew us away! Aside from the sour cabbage leaf holding everything together, there was little resemblance in filling or flavour to any we’ve ever tasted.
Unlike rolls found in neighbouring countries, rice plays a much smaller part in sarmale. Rather than making up the majority of the filling, here it’s used to help hold everything together. Instead, meat is the star of this dish. Ground pork and smokey bacon bulk up these delicious treats while fresh parsley and dill bring a bright blast of flavour.
Cabbage rolls are often an intimidating recipe for some, but they’re very easy to make. The ingredients are relatively common, and the procedure is simple. Even a first-time roller should have no problem putting this sarmale recipe together!
Romanian Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale)
- Prep Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
- Cook Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
- Total Time: 3 hours 45 minutes
- Servings: 10
- Sour Cabbage – One large head of sour cabbage. This is found pre-made in your grocery store, likely in the produce section.
- Vegetable Oil – 2 tablespoons, for cooking the onions and garlic.
- White Onion – 1 1/2 large onions, cut to a medium dice.
- Garlic – 2 cloves, finely minced.
- Dried Basil and Oregano – One tablespoon of each.
- White Rice – Use long grain white rice, as others might not cook well enough, leading to crunchy cabbage rolls.
- Ground Pork – Pork is probably the juiciest option. Other meats can be substituted, but may lead to a drier finished product.
- Red Pepper Flakes – 1 tablespoon; it’s just a subtle heat, nothing overpowering. Though you can omit if you want.
- Thick-cut Bacon – Good quality bacon is important here. 15 strips, cut into lardons (small rectangle strips).
- Bay Leaves – 6 dried bay leaves.
- Fresh Dill – One whole bunch, finely chopped. Fresh is key, as this is the most significant flavouring of sarmale. Set aside a few sprigs for garnishing.
- Fresh Parsley – Italian (flat leaf) parsley; one bunch, chopped. If you absolutely have to, you can use the curly stuff, but you’ll be missing out on a ton of great flavour.
- Tomato Juice – 700mL, this is what the sarmale will simmer in. Any good-quality tomato juice will do. You could use a jar of diced tomatoes and puree them as well.
- Salt and Pepper – To taste.
- Sour Cream – Or yogurt, serving.
(Refer to recipe card below for specific details)
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Prepare cabbage leaves.
- Make the filling. Saute 3/4 of the onions and garlic until soft, stir in dried herbs and rice and cook for another few minutes.
- In a bowl combine ground pork, parsley, dill, chili flakes, and rice mixture. Season with salt and pepper and mix until well combined.
- Remove large cabbage leaves and lay flat. Roughly chop the smaller remaining leaves into small bits.
- In a saute pan, cook bacon until crisp, add remaining onions and garlic, and chopped cabbage. Cook for several minutes until soft.
- Place a leaf on the cutting board, add a tablespoon of the ground meat mixture. Cover the filling with the base of the leaf. Bend edges on both sides and cover over the filling. Roll the stuffed cabbage leaf holding firm, so they won’t break during cooking time. This is exactly like rolling a burrito, or wrap.
- Place a 1/3 of the bacon/cabbage mixture on the bottom of a large casserole, along with 2 bay leaves. Place a layer of cabbage rolls on top of this. Repeat two more times until you have three layers of cabbage rolls and bacon mix. Pour juice/puree over just to cover, and top with 4 large cabbage leaves to seal in the steam.
- Cover casserole with foil or a lid and bake for 2 hours at 375°F.
- Remove from oven and let sit for 20 minutes before serving with sour cream.
- 1 large Sour Cabbage (bought pre-made in grocery store)
- 2 tbsp Vegetable Oil
- 1 1/2 large Onion, diced
- 2 cloves Garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp Dried Oregano
- 1 tbsp Dried Basil
- 1/4 cup White Rice, uncooked
- 1 lb Ground Pork
- 1 tbsp Red Pepper Flakes
- 15 strips Thick Cut Bacon, cut into lardons
- 6 Bay Leaves
- 1 bunch Fresh Dill, finely chopped (reserve a few sprigs for garnish)
- 1 bunch Fresh Parsley, finely chopped
- 700 mL Tomato Juice (or tomato puree)
- Salt & Pepper, to taste
- 1 cup Thick Sour Cream, to serve
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
- Grab a large pot and place the head of sour cabbage inside, fill to cover with water. Bring to boil for about 5 minutes turn off heat, discard water and cool cabbage. (This will make your house smell, so open a window, and turn on the fan!)
- In a large pan heat the oil on medium, add 3/4 of the onions and garlic. Cook until onions are soft and garlic is fragrant, season with salt and pepper.
- Add in the dry basil and oregano. Next, add the raw rice and cook for another 3 minutes, stirring constantly, browning the rice. Pull off heat and cool.
- In a large bowl combine the ground pork, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, parsley, dill. Next, add the chopped onion, garlic, and rice mixture to the bowl and mix well with clean hands (or gloved hands), making sure it is mixed VERY WELL.
- Core the cabbage to make removing the leaves easier. Remove all of the cabbage leaves, gently not to break them. You will only need the large leaves to make the rolls, so set these aside. Cut each large leaf in half, removing the tough core part too to make it easier to roll. Put 4 big whole leaves aside for later.
- Roughly chop smaller leaves, and the ones that broke during the rolling process and set aside in a bowl for later.
- Place big saucepan over medium heat, add oil and bacon cook until almost crisp, add the rest of chopped onions and garlic, and saute for 2-3 minutes. Add half of the chopped sour cabbage leaves and sauté for another 2 minutes. Place 1/3 of the cabbage and bacon mixture and 2 bay leaves on the bottom of a casserole dish.
- Start rolling your cabbage rolls.
- Place a leaf on the cutting board, add a tablespoon of the ground meat mixture. Cover the filling with the base of the leaf. Bend edges on both sides and cover over the filling. Roll the stuffed cabbage leaf holding firm, so they won't break during cooking time. This is exactly like rolling a burrito, or wrap.
- Place each roll on top of the cabbage and bacon mixture until you have one layer. Add another 1/3 of the cabbage-bacon mixture, as well as 2 more bay leaves.
- Keep making rolls and cover the second layer.
- Top with the rest of the cabbage-bacon and 2 bay leaves. Pour the tomato juice over the rolls. The juice should cover the cabbage rolls entirely so add additional water or tomato juice if needed. Cover with the four large leaves you set aside earlier. (Like a lid)
- Cover the casserole dish with foil or a lid and bake for 2 hours. Pull out of oven and let sit for 20 mins, as to not burn your face off.
- Serve warm with a dollop of thick sour cream or yogurt on the side, and garnish with dill.
- Save leftovers for lunch the next day, or freeze for another meal.