During Christmas I tried to stay away from blogging. I still cooked, but I tried to make the experience a little less stressful. I skipped taking pictures and writing down recipes. Ever since I started gourmetcubicle cooking hasn’t been the same for me. I still enjoy it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s completely different than what it used to be. Now I measure each and every pinch of spice I add and document everything I do which makes the whole cooking process a lot more time consuming. Cooking should be fun. It should be about following your gut, tasting and adjusting, screwing it up then retrying it again until you perfect a recipe. That’s what us bloggers do. We cook the same dish over and over again, until it looks and tastes perfect (or at least that's what we'd like to think).
I brought over a lot of recipes with me from Romania and Hungary. I have recipes scribbled on grease stained paper from my grandma, Buna. Some of them were inherited from from my great-grandma. I am also fortunate to have my mother and grandma give me advice over Skype every time I run into problems. Yet still some of the recipes they’ve been using for decades don’t work with the ingredients that I find here. For example, the other week I tried to make Hungarian pogácsa which is a fluffy and soft scone-like of appetizer. I followed the recipe that my mom used with success in the past, but for some reason the final result wasn’t the same. The first batch was, how to put it nicely, really bad. The second was edible. The third one will be even better. It takes trial and error to perfect something and this holds true for anything in life, not just for cooking. You have to be willing to accept that failure plays an important part in success.
Even though Austin isn’t exactly a place that reminds you of Christmas, I decided to bring back my Christmas tree decoration party after skipping it last year due to my trip to Cambodia. I started this tradition years ago when I moved to Austin and knew no one. Not having any Christmas tree decorations either, I decided to throw a party where I’d serve food for my guests in exchange for a tree ornament that they’d hang. Over the past 5 years I have collected all sorts of decorations from a mustard bottle-shaped ornament, to an ornament with a Popsi-like dog inside of it, to a mini painting of me, Roni and Popsi in front of a Christmas tree. I also have a bunch of handmade decorations. No one knows where life will take us years from now, but it will be great hanging them and remembering those friends.
Anyway before I go too deep into emotional shit, I better focus on what this blog is about: cooking. Stuffed cabbage is a staple dish in Eastern European cuisine. It’s a dish that is being served during major events or Holidays. Growing up in Romania, I can’t remember a single Christmas without stuffed cabbage. Whether you call them sarmale, töltött káposzta, golumpki, dolma or holubtsi it doesn’t really matter since they are all basically the same – leaves of some sort (cabbage, grape, etc) stuffed with meat (pork, beef, lamb, etc) and rice. There are several variations of this dish all over the Balkans. Some prefer them with blanched cabbage leaves, some with sour cabbage leaves. Others use grape leaves or even cherry leaves. Pork or beef? It doesn’t really matter it will taste good. If you can’t get a hold of sour cabbage leaves, just use blanched cabbage leaves (sweet cabbage leaves as we call them in Romania and Hungary) instead. When the rolls are prepared just cook them in a half tomato juice half water concoction. Adding dill to the mix is pretty common as well. If you are a fan of parsley you can add some to the filling. Also, any smoked meat will do, so if you can’t find smoked pork hock, you can use smoked dry sausage or smoked ham. It adds that smoky-sweet flavor that contrasts well with the sourness of the cabbage.
My mom and grandma sometimes prepare the cabbage rolls in a special clay cooker in the oven, but I found that cooking them in a cast iron Dutch oven yields similar results. My family usually serves them with fresh bread and sour cream, but it’s pretty common to serve them with a side of mamaliga (polenta) or mashed potatoes. The choice is yours. Poftă bună! Jó étvágyat!
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale)
Yields 30-40 rolls
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 60 minutes
- 5 TBS canola oil (or sunflower seed)
- 1 large onion (about 1/2 lb), finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped
- 1/4 tsp ground caraway seeds
- 2 TBS chicken stock (or water)
- 2.2 lbs ground pork
- 11 oz white long grain rice, rinsed
- 2 medium grated carrots (about 1/2 lb)
- 1 1/2 TBS paprika
- 1 TBS salt
- 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 head pickled cabbage (or 20-25 whole sour cabbage leaves)
- 1 smoked pork hock (about 1/2 lb)
- 2 bay leaves
- Heat three tablespoon of oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil easily slides across the pan add onions and sauté for 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 5 more minutes. Stir frequently to make sure the garlic doesn’t burn.
- Season with caraway and add stock. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 more minutes stirring every now and then.
- When the onions become translucent, remove from the heat and let the mixture cool down.
- In a large bowl, mix ground pork, rice and carrots. Season with paprika, salt and pepper. When the sautéed onions are cold enough to handle add them to the mix along with the rest of the oil (2 tablespoons)
- Using your hand combine thoroughly until everything is well blended. Set aside.
- Cut large leaves in half, removing the core and thick stems. Chop them roughly and set aside. Make sure you have 30-35 leaves ready to be stuffed. Don’t discard the rest, we’ll use them later.
- Place a tablespoon or so of meat filling in the middle of the cabbage leaf and roll creating a cone (see pic). Make sure it’s rolled relatively tightly. Fold the other end and seal by pressing the cabbage leaf inwards.
- Cut the meat off the smoked hock and roughly chop into bite size pieces. Keep the bone.
- Sprinkle a third of the chopped cabbage leaves and a few pieces of smoked meat on the bottom of a cast iron Dutch oven.
- Place the cabbage rolls in the Dutch oven with the pointy ends towards the middle. Keep the middle free of cabbage rolls. Add another layer of chopped cabbage leaves and then repeat laying the rolls until you run out of them.
- Place the smoked hock bone in the middle, sprinkle with more chopped cabbage leaves.
- Add enough water to barely cover the top layer of cabbage rolls, add the bay leaves and then lay a few whole cabbage leaves to keep the moisture in.
- Cover the Dutch oven with a lid and place it on the stove. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.
- Serve cabbage rolls with sour cream and fresh bread or mamaliga (polenta).
- The amount of oil you add to the filling depends on the fat content of the ground pork. 2 tablespoons are recommended for 80/20 pork (20% fat content). For anything less than 20% fat, add an extra tablespoon of oil.
- There are several ways to roll the stuffed cabbage, but my grandma’s method (creating cones) has worked perfectly for me.
- Place cabbage rolls as close to each other as possible. That way they will not open while they are cooking.
- I used a 24 liter (4 1/2 US quarts) Dutch oven for 38 cabbage rolls. Romanian cabbage rolls are smaller than Polish rolls, so the high number of rolls can be deceiving.