Around Christmas, I always want to prepare something that brings me back to my mother's kitchen, something comforting and something warm that reminds me of cold winter days and beautiful snow, from when I was a child. Stuffed cabbage rolls is one of those recipes that warm my heart. They are tender and nearly melt in your mouth as the slow cooking brings out subtle aromatic flavors.
Stuffed cabbage rolls is a traditional Romanian recipe that is very popular in my country during this beautiful holiday where they are also known as sarmale. They are prepared using sour cabbage filled with a mixture of minced pork and beef, rice, vegetables and aromatic herbs. These cabbage rolls are hearty, nourishing and comforting, perfect as a main course for a festive dinner party.
Cabbage rolls are quite simple to prepare but what is a bit time consuming is wrapping the rolls. They are usually slowly cooked, either in the oven or on the stove, in a heavy dutch oven pot around a delicious smoked pork hock. This gives a hearty smoked flavor to the cabbage rolls making them taste amazing. Once done, you and you family will enjoy fabulous feasts for the next days.
What is particular about Romanian cabbage rolls is the fact that they are prepared using sour or pickled cabbage. The important thing to remember is that this type of cabbage is usually salty. Therefore, a few hours before actually assembling the rolls, place the cabbage leaves in a large bowl with water. Also, cabbage leaves need to be large enough so they could wrap the filling.
For the filling, in addition to savory beef and pork, the rice absorbs all the delightful flavors as the cabbage rolls slowly braise. Fresh thyme and dill are also added for an aromatic, earthy touch. These savory cabbage rolls are delicious when served with polenta, sour cream or yogurt. For an original presentation, place them inside a crusty bread.
Yield: 60 rolls Time: 4 hours
- 450g (1 lb) ground pork
- 450g (1 lb) ground beef
- 70 cabbage pickled leaves
- 300 g (11 oz) round rice
- 450 g (1 lb) smoked pork hock
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 carrots, finely shredded
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup fresh dill, minced
- 2 dill springs
- 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
- 2 thyme springs
- 2 bay leaves
- Soak the cabbage leaves in water for at least 1 hour, to temper the saltiness.
- For the filling preparation, heat the olive oil in large pan, over medium heat. Once hot, add the onions and cook, until translucent for about 3 minutes. Add the finely shredded carrots. Mix 1 tablespoon of tomato paste with 120 ml (1/2 cup) water and add it to the pan. Wash the rice and add it to the onions and carrots, along with the chopped dill, 1 tablespoon of thyme, 1 teaspoon of salt and pepper and cook, over low heat, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
- Once the rice mixture is cooled, place it in a large bowl and combine it with the ground beef and pork, using your hands. Mix well.
- After the cabbage leaves have been soaked in water for long enough, cut each leaf in two if they are to large. Also, remove the core piece as well. Place them on a plate.
- Chop 5 cabbage leaves and place them on the bottom of a 5-quart dutch oven. Place the smoked pork hock in the middle.
- To make the rolls, place a generous tablespoon of meat filling in the center of each leaf. Fold the bottom half of cabbage over the filling then fold in sides and roll up tightly. Arrange the rolls in compact layers. After the first row, add the one thyme and dill spring and 1 bay leaf in between the rolls. Continue arranging a second layer and add the remaining bay leaf, thyme and dill springs.
- After all the cabbage rolls have been organized in the pot, chop the remaining cabbage leaves and place them on top.
- Combine the remaining tomato paste with 500 ml (2 cups) of water and pour over the rolls and shredded cabbage. The rolls should be almost covered with liquid.
- Bring to a boil, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low heat and cook for 2 hours and 30 minutes.
- Remove from heat and set aside. Scoop out a bread center leaving a 3/4-inch-thick shell.
- Serve the hot cabbage rolls inside a rustic bread.
Tips and Tricks:
- Do not fold the rolls to tight as they expand when the rice cooks.
- One hour before the cooking finishes, taste a cabbage roll. Adjust the seasoning with more salt and pepper, if needed. On the other hand, if they are too salty, add more water to the pot.
- Cabbage rolls freeze very well before and after cooking.