Stuffed Cabbage Leaves

It so happened that the need arose for me to roll up my sleeves and find the kitchen. I feared nothing good would come out of this, so what motivated me was the fact that the whole experience would make for great blog material.

Evan and I are part of a weekly parenting class/play group, and each week a family brings in dinner for the class. This week it was our turn. Ever since I signed up I was planning to make “sarmale” (stuffed cabbage leaves) based on a recipe from the ol’ country. I was concerned the effort required would be more than I could handle and I’d give up before starting. Luckily I have a supportive friend visiting for a few weeks and together with her we dove right into the task.



Leaves preparations:

3 large cabbages

1/4 cup vinegar

A couple dried thyme twigs & Salt

Meat mix:

2 tablespoons sunflower oil

3 medium-sized yellow onions – finely chopped

5 small sweet peppers – finely diced

2 carrots – grated

4 tomatoes – finely diced (or 2 tomatoes and a tablespoon of tomato paste)

1 1/2 cups white rice

Salt & Pepper & Ground paprika

2lb ground pork meat

1lb ground beef meat

Finishing touches:

A bunch of dried thyme twigs

Unground black pepper

Bay leaves & Dried dill

2 pieces smoked ham hock & Bacon

Borscht powder (if available, otherwise lemon juice)


Phase 1

Grab a pot large enough to fit the biggest cabbage. Fill it with water, add salt, the vinegar and a couple dried thyme twigs and bring to a boil. Carve out the core of the cabbage to make it easy to pull the leaves off once the cabbage softened. Sink one cabbage in the boiling water (watch your hands!) and let it sit for about 5 minutes before you start pulling off the leaves one by one (you can stick one fork where the core used to be to hold the cabbage and use a knife to cut the leaves one by one, at the base). Give the cabbage enough time in water, you want the leaves soft, but…  not too soft (use your judgment).

When done with parboiling cabbage #1, repeat with cabbage #2.

Put the leaves away. You can place a couple of thyme twigs on top and cover them.

Cabbage #3 will be finely cut/shredded and set aside.

Phase 2

Heat the sunflower oil in a pan and sauté the onions, peppers, grated carrots and tomatoes for about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the rice, salt and pepper and a healthy sprinkle of ground paprika. Reduce the heat to low and let cook for 5 more minutes. This mix should not be fully cooked. If it looks too dry, add a bit more oil. Set aside to cool.

Mix the two types of meat and add the sautéed veggies and rice mix. Add more salt and pepper to taste (yes, you should actually taste the uncooked meat – thank God, I had my friend to tackle this task).

Phase 3

Bring the leaves into the picture and start rolling. We kinda struggled with this, I have to admit. In the end all sarmale turned out fine esthetically and flavor-wise, so do not despair. Here and here are a couple of videos that helped us (it didn’t occur to me that I could have made my own video, but will for sure do it next time around).

If you cannot watch the videos, what we have done was take the leaf into your left hand and place a suitable amount of meat mix onto it. Fold the bottom part of the leaf over part of the mix and start rolling from right to left, then push the top end of the leaf down as to close the roll.

 A few tips for success:

  • decide what look you’re going for – big fat rolls, or fancy finger-food type rolls. If you go for the first look use whole leaves, if for the latter look cut the leaves in half. We went for both big and small, and various sizes in between. :)
  • make sure you trim the thick veins of the leaves to make for an easy rolling
  • roll tightly to make sure the contents will not spill

Phase 4 and last

We had to split the yield into two pots: we used a crock pot for half and an enameled cast iron pot for the other half (went in the oven). Line the bottom(s) of the pot(s) with a few dried thyme twigs, a couple of raw cabbage leaves or unused parboiled leaves or trimmed thick stems. Place the ham hock in the center and then the rolls around it, closely together, seam side down. Add some 5-6 bay leaves among the rolls, and sprinkle over pepper grains and some dried dill. You can add as many layers as needed, leaving room for a layer of shredded cabbage. Add the shredded cabbage covering the rolls. Sprinkle paprika on top, add a couple of extra bay leaves, pepper grains and a few slices of bacon.

Mix a tablespoon of borscht powder (or lemon juice) to 4 cups of water and add the mix to the pot (4 cups to each pot in our case) or enough to reach the top of the rolls (when lightly pressing on the shredded cabbage, you should see the water surfacing).

Depending on the cooking medium chosen:

  • Either start the crock pot on high for 30 minutes, then turn it on low and leave it on for 8 hours (I left it overnight, we kinda played with fire here but we were both exhausted).
  • Or heat the oven at 530F, then set it at 350F, place the pot in the oven and cook for 3 hours.

Serve warm with sour cream and mamaliga. :)

It’ll be delicious!



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