Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sarma (cabbage rolls)

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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!
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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!
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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:
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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.
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Fermented cabbage leaves, rinsed and draining:
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To roll each sarma, cup the leaf in the palm of your hand.  Fill with about 3 tablespoons of the meat mixture:
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Fold one side over without straightening the ends:
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Then the opposite side, but don’t straighten it at the end: 
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 Fold the thick end over and roll:
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Keep on rolling!
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When you get to the end, tuck the ends into the sides created by rolling.  This way, the sarma won’t unravel as easily.
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 Stack them as you go, the largest ones in one pile, medium in another, and small in a third pile: 
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In your biggest soup pot, cover the bottom with a layer of the leaf rejects.  Arrange the largest sarme (plural) in a snug fashion:
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When you’ve reached the top, nestle in about 6 smoked ribs:
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Fill the pot with water but don’t cover the top layer.  Sprinkle with lots of paprika.
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Cover the top layer of sarme with more of the leaf rejects.  Cover with the lid and simmer for 3-4 hours. 
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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
Please note a slight change in the method below (changes in bold). We no longer sauté the meat beforehand, only the onions. 
On medium heat, sauté diced onions in a little canola or olive oil until they are soft and starting to turn brown. Remove from heat and 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.
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  1. Bravo Dragana,prava domaca sarma !!:)
    Ja u Australiji nemam tako dobro suvo meso !!

    1. Ma nije valjda, nema dobro suvo meso u Australiji?? Jedino ako si u Coober Pedy.... hahahaha

  2. Thank you so much for posting this! Sound like a lovely day!

    Do you use kosher salt for making sauerkraut or do you use regular table salt?

  3. Sarma krasno izgleda i znam da je fina jer ju radim skoro pa isto. Naravno, ne u toj količini - ali koliko god napravim sve se pojede. Obožavamo je, ali mislim da ostatak svijeta baš i nije neki fan sarme, a preko bare čini mi se da je teško naći i kiselo zelje(kupus).

  4. Great post, Dragana! I love sarma and will be sure to pass this on to all my relatives of Serbian descent :)

  5. Veoma mi se dopadaju tvoji postovi o hrani iz starog kraja. Mislim da je i vrlo lijepo što si tu ljubav prenijela na djecu.
    Predivan ti je post o tati, stvorila sam sliku krasnog šarmantnog gospodina iz stare garde.

  6. Wow! Dragana, these look amazing and I don't even like cabbaged foods. Is there a place in Houston where I can find the leaves already fermented? I would love to try this.

  7. Helen: my father uses table salt, since that is all that was available in the former Yugoslavia. I'm sure Kosher salt would be fine.

    chefyourself: you can find fermented cabbage leaves at Phoenicia on Westheimer near Kirkwood.

    To my friends from the old country: hvala vam na komplimenta!

    Ruthie: I'm curious to see your relatives' thoughts about our recipe.

  8. You have beautiful photos. I love this style of cooking! Next time I make cabbage rolls I am going to refer to your post. Have you ever been to the Russian Store on Hilcroft? I love that place.

  9. Stravo Dragana...i loved sarma with kiseli mleko.....hehehe.
    Big hug

  10. My Swedish aunt used to make these as well, and sometimes we would have them on our smorgasbord. I would say that cabbage rolls are also Northern European. You make it look so easy, and your pictures are very clear. I think I may have to give it a try!

  11. Oh I'm so glad I found your blog! My mouth is watering at all this good food!

  12. Dragana ,you are Serbian Martha Stewart, even better, she can not do "sarma"!

  13. Stephanie - the Russian store is on my list next time I'm in that area of town.
    Vera - that would be delicious!
    Denise - yes, many cultures in Northern and Eastern Europe claim cabbage rolls as their own!
    ProudItalianCook - thank you!
    Dana - that's the best compliment ever!!!

    1. Some of the best sarma I've ever had were made for me by a Saudi woman. So it's not just the Slavs! The Saudi sarme had unexpected spices.

  14. Покушао сам ваш пуњена Балкану, то је врло, врло укусно !!!!!
    Ја ћу уверите свој рецепт! Хвала!

  15. Sarma is one of my favorite foods in whole BFF's sister is married to a Serb (last name Arezina!) and she would always give me leftovers. Sadly, she is still in Milwaukee and I am now in Houston. I have had the sarma at Cafe Pita, but it's just not the same. Looks like LOTS of wonder it tastes so good!

  16. I have a bit of a debate with my (Serb) wife. I have always thought kosher salt is better for pickling vegetables because it is without additives... she only makes sour cabbage with regular table salt.

    Also, we have always made them using a plastic storage bin that only holds about 10 cabbages, but I always wanted to get a ceramic pot like Harsch but they are so expensive! Is there any trouble with using plastic? What kind is safest as far as chemicals leaching into food?

    1. My parents use to go to little Italy here in Windsor Ontario Canada (Erie Street) and buy a big plastic barrel. They would drill a hole approx 8 inches from the bottom and put in a spout. Make sure to seal it well. You should make sure the barrel is place high enough off the ground to give you decent access to the spout so as to be able to drain the liquid out. Follow Dragana’s recipe as it’s the same. We used kosher salt and only rotated the upper layers as we had a spout which allows you to drain out the salty brine into a bucket and then pour it back into the barrel. It makes it a little easier to disperse the salt in the brine and prevent them from getting mushy and spoiling. Also when it’s ready the brine is a drink we call “rasol”, similar to pickle juice. They’d give us kids a bit to “procisti crevo” haha flush your system so to speak, I always loved the taste of rasol being a fan of anything sour!

    2. Thank you Aleksandra for your valuable input and story! Like your parents, my grandfather had a barrel with a spout, and my mother remembers him draining the rasol from the spout and pouring it back in the top. She says his rasol was always crystal clear and delicious! We are using sea salt nowadays.

  17. Hi Pam:
    Most good food takes time and a loving touch!

    jon w:
    I believe you have a valid concern when it comes to plastic. I think it is more harmful when heated. We just happen to be looking into buying a couple of whiskey barrels to replace the plastic can. I'll let you know how it works for us.

  18. Thank you thank you thank you Dragana! In New Zealand the kupus is so hard to find in the shops. My fiance will be so happy that I have found the recipe for kupus to make him sarma!

  19. Hvala, Dragana! My mother-in-law always served sarma without meat for part of Christmas dinner and we also had it with meat other times. I'm certain my husband would love if I made it, but how many cabbages are needed for your above recipe? I probably won't make so many, but can't halve the recipe until I know how many heads. Thanks!

    1. I'd say about 7 heads of cabbage for this recipe. Each head yields about 12 to 15 leaves.

  20. Hvala, Dragana! My mother-in-law served us sarma with meat in winter and without for part of Christmas dinner when we lived in Serbia. I know my husband would enjoy it if I made it for us. Just one question: how many heads of cabbage are used for the recipe?

    1. Unfortunately we didn't count the heads of cabbage when we were making sarma - ha! You can usually get between 12 to 15 leaves per cabbage. So for this amount of meat, I'd say 7 heads of cabbage would be enough.

  21. Aaaah! Beautiful recipe! I am from Australia and have many serbian friends who have made this for me... I never knew how to make it until now! This will definitely be on the menu very soon.

    Just a quick question - can you use a slow cooker instead of boiling the cabbage rolls?

    1. We have never made them in a slow cooker, but I think it would work! I would cook them for twice the amount of time I recommend, because I think the slow cooker is a lower heat source. Let me know how they turn out!

  22. Where can I buy 'kiseo kupus' (sour crout) in the Washungton DC rea, or in Northern Virginia? Thanks..Mira

    1. Unfotunately I am not familiar with that area. I suggest you 'google' Serbian or Eastern European stores and you may come up with a few nearby. Best of luck!

  23. Thank you for sharing the recipe and for including photos of the process... they were so helpful. Our batch of sarma came out perfectly. My husband (A/K/A "The Big Serb") said, "Mmmm... just like Mom used to make!" Thanks again!

  24. Oh, these are outstanding, very close to the way I make them. You have to have the brined cabbage leaves, which I really need to start making, as they are harder to come by every year. Also, the smoked pork in some way, shape or form is necessary to impart that greatbflavor.

  25. Thank you! It's not difficult to brine cabbage and there's no other way to make sarma than with "kiseli kupus". My mom starts in early December. Smoked pork and paprika give it great flavor, and never add tomatoes!

  26. Hvala Dragana from a Serb in Canada originally from Ub Srbija. Brings back wonderful memories of my late mom and dad and how much we loved making kiseli lupus and sarma. ♥️


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