If you are of Eastern European heritage, one of your favorite winter meals is bound to be sarma. Sarma varies from region to region and family to family, but the basic ingredients are meat wrapped in fermented cabbage leaves and flavored with smoked pork. It is made with ingredients taken from the food that was prepared for the long cold winters – known as zimnica in Serbia. It has become the comfort food my family longs for at the beginning of winter. It is the comfort food that my extended family and friends share at our Orthodox Christmas and other gatherings.
Kiseli kupus (sauerkraut) is the key to authentic sarma and can be easily made at home. Even during our milder Texas winters, my father has had much success with the process. People have been fermenting cabbage leaves since ancient times. In remote villages it was a way to preserve food during the cold winter months when fresh vegetables were not readily available. For my parents, homemade kiseli kupus is superior to the store-bought product and it’s the only sauerkraut they use for their sarma. It’s a wonderful sight to see the pride in my father’s face when he offers his sauerkraut and smoked pork ribs and neck for sarma.
My college-age kids requested sarma at the same time a local food critic asked me for the recipe. My mother follows no written recipe, only the knowledge that it is best made with fermented cabbage leaves, lean meat with a little bit of rice, a generous amount of freshly ground pepper and sweet paprika, and smoked pork to add a depth of flavor to the clear broth. Tomatoes are not part of mama’s sarma as she believes the acidity in the tomatoes would mask the distinctive flavors of the sauerkraut and smoked pork.
We spent a wonderful morning together, mama and me. We cooked and I measured each ingredient as we progressed, and when the sarma was ready, it was packaged and ready to be delivered to my kids who love their Serbian heritage and sarma!
First, you get your human pepper grinder to work. You need lots of freshly ground black pepper. Here is our sauerkrautier and meat smoker par excellence - my dad!
Smoked pork neck (left) goes in the filling, and the ribs flavor the sauce. It’s important to have ample amounts of Turkish coffee on hand when making sarma:
Smoked pork ribs flavor the sarma and broth. When these cook for 3-4 hours, the meat is very tender and falls off the bone. You can trim the thick skin if you wish, but remember that a lot of flavor is in the fat.
Fermented cabbage leaves, rinsed and draining:
To roll each sarma, cup the leaf in the palm of your hand. Fill with about 3 tablespoons of the meat mixture:
Fold one side over without straightening the ends:
Then the opposite side, but don’t straighten it at the end:
Fold the thick end over and roll:
Keep on rolling!
When you get to the end, tuck the ends into the sides created by rolling. This way, the sarma won’t unravel as easily.
Stack them as you go, the largest ones in one pile, medium in another, and small in a third pile:
In your biggest soup pot, cover the bottom with a layer of the leaf rejects. Arrange the largest sarme (plural) in a snug fashion:
When you’ve reached the top, nestle in about 6 smoked ribs:
Fill the pot with water but don’t cover the top layer. Sprinkle with lots of paprika.
Cover the top layer of sarme with more of the leaf rejects. Cover with the lid and simmer for 3-4 hours.
Makes 78 sarme (plural)
3 large onions, finely diced
canola or olive oil
6 oz smoked pork, diced. Pork neck is the best – see picture of the smoked meat.
5 lbs ground beef (about 92% lean)
2 tablespoons salt
1½ cups long grain rice
½ cup ‘sweet’ ground paprika, plus more for sprinkling the top
3 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
78 fermented cabbage leaves (recipe below, or you can purchase them at your local imported goods store)
About 6 smoked pork ribs
On medium heat, sauté diced onions in a little canola or olive oil until they are soft and starting to turn brown. Add diced pork and stir briefly. Increase heat to high setting and add ground beef. Brown quickly to retain the juices. Add salt, rice, paprika and pepper and combine well.
Rinse excess salt off cabbage leaves and allow to drain in a colander. Separate the smaller, broken leaves and set them aside. For the larger leaves: trim the thick middle vein with a sharp knife or kitchen scissors without cutting through the leaf. They will be easier to roll that way.
For each cabbage leaf: fill with about 3 tablespoons of meat mixture. Roll in the palm of your hand by following the photos above, or place each cabbage leaf on a cutting board, and then fill and roll with both hands. Stack sarme on the side until all are rolled.
Drizzle a little oil on the bottom of a large stock pot with a wide base. Using the small, broken cabbage leaves, line the bottom of the pot with a single layer. Arrange sarme seam end up and close together on top of the cabbage leaves. With the seam end up, the sarme will stay intact when you scoop it out underneath it with a spoon when you are ready to serve them. Continue layering sarme until they are all in the pot.
Nestle the ribs in the top layer and fill the pot with water almost to cover the top sarme. Sprinkle generously with more paprika and cover sarme with leftover cabbage leaves.
Bring to boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and allow to simmer for 3-4 hours.
To serve: Carefully spoon 2 – 3 sarme per person, and rib meat into a bowl. Ladle some of the broth into bowl. Serve with warm crusty bread.
Kiseli kupus (sauerkraut)
To make sauerkraut, start with heads of cabbages that have the greenest outer leaves. Wash and remove the damaged leaves and discard. Core the cabbages (the core is delicious eaten raw). Stuff the hole with plenty of salt, pushing it in as tightly as you can. The salt will act as a preservative and prevent decay.
Place the cabbages in a barrel or plastic container large enough to fit them. My parents use a garbage can especially for this. Fill the barrel with water and a very generous amount of salt. You will be rinsing the cabbage leaves off later, so don’t be shy about adding plenty of salt.
Cover the cabbages with a large pan or plate and weight it down with a rock. Place lid on container. Place in the coolest part of the house or garage.
EVERY DAY for 3 weeks, the cabbages must be turned and shuffled in the container. This will prevent spoilage and keep the salt evenly dispersed. The sauerkraut will be ready in 3 weeks for sarma.