Christmas Traditions, the Romanian Way

Fill in the blanks (and we are talking food)- it is not Christmas without ___.

I have no recollection of the first moment I tasted it. I hardly remember learning to make it. But I will never forget the sensory overload that the scent of this dish shoved my into every single time it flooded out of the oven. Warm, sweet, sour, bacony, seasoned with thyme, bay leaves, peppercorn, complete with onions, garlic, the sauerkraut cabbage roll -sarmale - is ever present during the holiday season in any Romanian home.
For the past ten years, I have rolled up my sleeves and made that dish here in Denver. I made it because it would never be Christmas without it. I made it to get myself high on the scent that comes out of the oven while it cooks. I made it because I craved eating it next to the Christmas tree. And in the process, I got a few new family members hooked on it.

The food that I grew up with is precious and priceless. Nothing will ever replace it. It built the person I am, the palate that makes me smile when I taste something new, the ease with which I make everything from scratch no matter the time or effort, the fearlessness that makes me comfortable cooking any vegetable without a recipe.

Somehow though, the food of my childhood, the Romanian food, my grandma’s dishes are not what I am focusing on in the kitchen. I find no need to spend my time perfecting Romanian dishes. I don’t use recipes for Romanian recipes- they are simply part of me. And I have a hard time sharing them for two reasons -first, I just don’t have a written recipe- I make it up, every time. Also, I am not exactly sure how much interest it would garner (the humble way to describe my feeling) or how much appreciation you would have for it (the snarky way to describe my feeling). 

But no matter what my feelings are rooted in, when I got this email from my sister-in-law…

subject: cabbage rolls

ok… what do I need to do to convince you to write a blog post. In the spirit of Hanukkah, Ansel [my nephew] and his mama and dada would love your recipe!

…I figured I’ll go ahead and write the recipe, share my tradition, my scent of Christmas, my ‘it’s not Christmas without’dish. 

Sarmale, a Romanian holiday tradition

Ingredients: 2 large cabbage heads; about 1/2 cup canola oil for sauteeing; 2 pounds 85% lean ground beef (pork in Romania; I adjusted for the Jewish guy I married); 2 large slices of bread; 1/4 cup milk; 2 large eggs; 2 large onions, finely chopped; 4 large garlic cloves, minced; 5 tablespoons rice; 4 tablespoons thyme leaves, finely chopped, plus 5-6 springs; 1 cup tomato sauce; 4 ounces of bacon, sliced; 4 bay leaves; 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns; 32 ounce jar of sauerkraut; salt and pepper to taste.

The real trick is the cabbage. Back in Romania, we did this with sauerkraut. No – not the kind you buy in a jar at the chain grocery store or that plastic bag at your fine food grocer. Every fall, whole cabbages get the salt water treatment in Romania in giant containers that are left in cool dark pantries. These cabbages are perfectly sour, still crunchy, yet softened by Christmas. But that is back in Romania and we’re not there. Well, I may actually be there while you are reading this, but I digress.

Remove the leaves from the cabbage trying to keep them intact. You might need to smack the cabbage a few times on the counter to release some of the hardness. You might need to remove the core without removing the leaves first. You might need to cut it in half at one point, but first try to remove the leaves while it is whole. You will probably only use half of each of the two cabbages. You will notice that the leaves get thicker and harder and whiter pretty fast. You don’t want those. You will get probably about 15 leaves out of each cabbage- more or less works, and leaves that are imperfect are fine – you can patch things up.

In a large, preferably deep sautee pan, heat a layer of canola oil, about 1/8 of an inch. Add the cabbage leaves in batches. Sprinkle salt on them and move them around the pan until they are coated with oil and start to soften. You want them to be limp without any browning so adjust the heat on your stove if you must. Repeat with the rest of the leaves and set aside.

Wipe your sautee pan clean, add a layer of canola oil, and put it on medium heat. When hot, add the onions and a sprinkle of kosher salt. Allow the onions to soften without browning- 3 or 4 minutes. Add the rice and cook for 3-4 more minutes. Add garlic and chopped thyme and remove from heat after 1 more minute. Set aside.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl, combine meat, bread, eggs, salt, pepper, and the cooked onions/rice/garlic/thyme. Mix it well with your hands. I personally taste it for seasonings- I know, it’s raw- so is tartare. You can eye it …or taste it.

Get an oven proof heavy bottomed pot and put half of the sauerkraut, including the liquid on the bottom of the pan. Start forming the rolls- one cabbage leaf at a time. Roll about a small handful of the meat mixture in each of the leaves. There is no specific size requirement- you make the rules, but I’d try to keep them sort of the same size.

Pack them up snug, lay anther layer of rolls on top of it and top with the rest of the sauerkraut. Lay your bacon slices on top, pour the tomato sauce in a sort of even layer, and top with the bay leaves, thyme springs, and peppercorns. There should be liquid up to 3/4 of the pot. Cover it and stick it in the oven.

After 1 hour and 15 minutes (approximately), take the cover off the pot. Place back in the oven for another 15-30 minutes.

Serve with polenta and always make memories around food!

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

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  • Anonymous

    ahhhh…I have been checking your site every night and waiting for this one!!! Can't wait to have a little taste of Romania in our kitchen. And can't wait till the cousins can share this tradition. We miss you guys!!
    LOVE to all – t.

  • Monet

    What a beautiful post…we all have those recipes that Christmas wouldn't be complete without. These cabbage rolls look and sound amazing. I wish you the Merriest Christmas. Thank you for always infusing my days with such great eats, sweet words and thoughtful comments….I'm thankful for you!

  • thespicegarden

    Simple flavors, vegetables handled lovingly, a filling that is understated and gorgeous. These are beautiful … enough said.

  • Torviewtoronto

    looks wonderful happy holidays

  • smondo

    Andra -welcome back to Denver! I love this post, more so because we have this tradition in common. Coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina, my Christmas memories also center on Sarmale or Sarma which is what we call it. We make it almost exactly the same with some small variations. Sometimes grandmother would add some tomato sauce, although I prefer it without. And we use slab bacon, that I get from the Russian stores on Leetsdale.
    Also, believe it or not, we can be in Romania or Bosnia even here in Denver because every year, I go to my Bosnian friends and get a few kiseli kupus heads, which every family that I know 'sours' at the begining of the winter in big plastic bins outside in their garages. (too stinky to keep inside ;)
    You and I, we are so lucky to carry these traditions with us. Happy rest of the holiday to you.
    PS – We still have some sarma chilling in the cold air on the porch, just in case you are feeling homesick, let me know.

  • Bethany

    I love hearing about your traditions… beautifully written and beautifully described. I remember the first time I tried this dish in Breckenridge and have been wishing for the recipe ever since! Can't wait to try it and experience Romania vicariously through Sarmale.

  • Frank

    How I *love* cabbage rolls! I had heard of serving it with polenta before, but come to think of it, it does make a lot of sense. I'll have to try it that way next time!

  • Rosemary

    A beautiful post! So lovingly written. I would be well-loved here if I would make these for my German husband. I'm willing to try, thanks to your coaching.

  • The Mom Chef

    Bless your sister-in-law for convincing you to post this. I've bookmarked it and can't wait to give it a try. I'm Armenian and we have a rolled grape/cabbage leaf dish called sarma, which is very similar until you get to the sauerkraut layer, which we don't have. I read every single line of the instructions…that's how intriguing and interested in this I am. I know most of us would be. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • FamilySpice

    Looks amazing! I make a lot of stuffed grape leaves, but love cabbage, too. I will have to try yours.

  • The Cilantropist

    Andra this recipe is incredible. I am so thrilled that you shared this, and I am bookmarking the page right now – my grandmother made something similar to these, although it was just the cabbage rolls and not the sauerkraut and bacon (both of which undoubtedly make this dish irresistable). I can completely understand your hesitancy to share such a recipe, because I have family recipes as well where it is difficult to write it down since you make it all from memory and taste. Nonetheless, I am extremely glad you did, and I hope you have had an absolutely beautiful holiday! Here hoping 2011 is a wonderful year for you! <3

  • Magic of Spice

    What a wonderful post…and this dish is incredible!
    Hope you are having a fantastic start to 2011!

  • whatsfordinneracrossstatelines

    My Aunt makes these every year on New Years. I love your recipe. I can't wait to make some. Hope you have a great week!