It’s time for some tasty winter food. And nothing says ‘winter’ better than ‘sauerkraut’. Don’t you think? And when I say sauerkraut I actually mean sarma. Sarma [Сарма] is how the best kind of comfort food looks like in winter. According to me, that is. Traditional sarma is basically minced meat with rice wrapped in whole leaves of sauerkraut and then cooked in an oven or on a stove amongst some herbs with some bacon type meat in between the rolls of sauerkraut.
As I don’t do meat, our winter sarma is a bit different. You could basically call it posna sarma. Posna/o is the word we use in Macedonia when we talk about the meals you eat when you fast (religiously). On fasting days you eat things that aren’t derived from animals. My grandma would do that in her older days on Fridays I believe. She would for example make stuffed paprika’s without meat. She would replace the meat by veggies and herbs. I’m not sure if she would do that with sarma, because sarma really has this very specific taste that comes from the minced meat and the bacon. I’m guessing she wouldn’t eat it on Friday’s because of that. She would just eat it during other parts of the week.
For me there aren’t other parts of the week, so I got used to eating my sarma without meat. The thing that makes the sarma for me now, is the taste of the sour cabbage leaves. The smell in the house during the whole day of cooking is also divine I must say. I can’t describe it, you really have to try it yourself. Luckily I’m willing to share my recipe with you below.
- full head of sauerkraut (buy it at a Turkish/Polish/Armenian supermarket or make it – well in advance – yourself)
- 1 cup of round rice (risotto – dessert – sushi or something similar)
- 5 small onions*
- 2 bell peppers*
- 1 eggplant*
- 2 cloves garlic*
- 6 tbsp sunflower oil (can be more)
- 2 cubes of vegetable stock (to taste)
- generous amount of paprika powder (mostly sweet and/or smoked)
- 4 bay leaves
- 6 cups of water (to begin with)
*You can replace the vegetables/seasoning and parts of the oil with a store bought mix of veggies, like the ones in the jar below (my favourite). Depending on the time that I have or the supplies I have at hand I either use one or the other. You can also replace the veggies I used above with other veggies. As long as they have a strong – summery – taste it will work. I would only advise against legumes or other cabbages for the filling.
- Start with the filling. If you aren’t using a store bought mix of vegetables as shown above, you’ll need to cube all the veggies into small pieces and put it up on a low fire to sauté with some sunflower oil till it’s all translucent. Add the vegetable stock cubes and some paprika powder. Stir it around and add the cup of rice and stir some more. If you are using the store bought mix of veggies, you can just add the rice after it’s warmed up in the pan. Taste it and decide if you need to add something to improve the taste. The filling is now ready. Yes, your rice will be still raw and just slightly immersed in the sauce.
- It’s time to wrap the filling with the fermented cabbage leaves. Did I tell you that the word sarma is derived from a Turkish word that means something like wrapped? Now you know! You start by preparing the leaves. First you drain the leaves properly after you have picked them off the head. You do that to take the excessive sour/salty taste off the cabbage.
- Filling and wrapping up the leaves is really easy. You just place a spoon full of the veggie-rice mix on the bottom part of the leaf. Then pull the bottom part up and roll it for a full circle. Then take the left and the right side of the leaf and fold them in, to the middle of the leaf. Cover the mix and close the roll off tightly. It’s basically the same principle as spring rolls or dolma’s.
- The rolls can be placed in the oven dish. I use a dutch oven-pan, you can also use a glass or ceramic oven dish. Whatever you have. Ideally it would have a lid, but it’s not necessary. On the bottom of the pan you sprinkle some sunflower oil and you add little pieces of the sauerkraut that were in the middle part of the head. The pieces that can’t be filled because they are too small. They will protect your ‘real’ pieces from burning. Now you can add your layers of sarma.
- I made two layers and in between the layers I placed a few bay leaves and sprinkled it with a bit of smoked paprika powder to add some extra flavours to the mix. Normally you would add the bacon in the middle. After you finish the second row, you finish it off again with some of the last leaves. This will protect it from burning on top, especially if you don’t have a lid. Now you can add some paprika powder again and finish it of with the water. You only start with a specific amount of water, but if you have a bigger pan or if the mix dries out, you just add some more water as it is baking.
- The pan can be placed with the lid on top in the pre-heated oven on about 180C. You can check every 30 minutes how the water is doing. Leave it in the oven for 2 or 3 hours. When it’s done (it’s done when the cabbage leaves are tender and soft (not mushy)), you can take the lid off and bake it off for another 15 minutes. You will see that the top layer of leaves turn brown.
- It’s ready for serving now. I serve them on a plate with pieces of bread. Ideally with some of the cooked water that you can dip into with your bread.
We eat one layer per dinner with the two of us. I leave the other layer in the pan and the next day I place it in the oven again. The top part of the packages will turn brown again. I believe sarma tastes better the day after you have cooked it up initially. So it’s really best to make two portions or more at a time, depending on the capacity of your oven/pot and the size of your company.
I hope you enjoy this ‘authentic’ Balkan dish during this winter season. Please let me know if you have any questions. If you want to try the meat variety: Google is your friend.