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Sarmales (Romanian Cabbage Rolls)

Sarmales (sar-ma-leez) are the quintessential Romanian dish. No Romanian household is without sarmales on special occasions, especially Easter and Christmas. If there is a national Romanian food, this is it.
I learned to make these from watching my mother and from a family recipe, scribbled in pencil, photocopied several times, with added notes from a few aunts.
Even people who don’t like cabbage like sarmales. Be sure to serve them with a dish of sour cream on the table. Heavenly.
Sarmales are not difficult to make. There’s no dough – just cabbage. Without the sausage they’re also pretty healthy. They’re mostly time-consuming, and waiting for the cabbage to cool takes the longest, except for rolling. You can be making what is basically meatloaf for the filling in the meantime.
Family members can help roll the sarmales. Put the meat into the cup of the leaf, roll until the meat is covered, fold the sides of the leaf inward, and finish rolling. If you know how to roll a burrito, you’re golden. Some people can even tuck in the little ends. I never learned to do that, and it’s all good. Cook seam side down, and they will stay rolled. If rolling is not going to happen, you can make a casserole with layers of cabbage leaves, sauerkraut, and meat and get exactly the same wonderful flavor.
You don’t even have to use sauerkraut, but I promise all of the “sauer” cooks out. In the days before refrigeration, cabbage was pickled in order to preserve it. Winter sarmales were made from this pickled cabbage, so it is added to preserve the traditional flavor.
Although this is practically an official Romanian food, there is no official recipe. Even amongst my mother and her six sisters there are differences, which I have noted. You can also find other sarmale recipes on the internet; differences seem based on the region of origin. My mother’s family is from the Moldova province, near the Ukrane border.
1 ½ pounds ground beef[1]
2 eggs, slightly beaten
½ cup converted rice such as Uncle Ben’s or Minute Rice. If using regular rice, cook it for 20 minutes and then measure.
2-3 tablespoons catsup
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 can chopped tomatoes, drained (reserve liquid)
2 large onions, chopped
1 large jar sauerkraut, drained
2 large heads cabbage with large green leaves
3 cans condensed tomato soup[2]
2 packages beef kelbasa (24 oz)[3]
Core the cabbage and boil for no more than 5 minutes.[4] Drain and let cool.
Saute the onions in a little olive oil until limp/golden.
Thoroughly mix meat, eggs, rice, catsup, salt, pepper, drained tomatoes, and onions in a large bowl.
Gently separate the cabbage leaves from the heads, a few at a time, being careful not to tear them.
Line the bottom of a large roasting pan with small or torn cabbage leaves.
Use a paring knife to shave down the outside rib of each cabbage leaf – this makes them easier to roll.
Put approximately 1/8 – 1/4 cup of meat mixture in the cabbage leaf “cup” and roll like a burrito. Use more meat for larger leaves, and less for smaller sarmales. Place seam-side down in the roasting pan.
Cover the first layer of sarmales with half of the sauerkraut. Repeat for second layer. Mix tomato soup with three cans of water and pour over sarmales. Cover and bake at 350 for 45 minutes. Add pieces of kelbasa and bake for another 45 minutes.
Makes approximately 24 sarmales.
Serve with sour cream.
Super good the next day, too!
[1]Internet recipes call for smoked pork and combinations of beef and pork. I’ve even used lamb. It’s meatloaf.
[2] You may use less soup or none, and/or use the drained tomato water; the sarmales steam in the oven when covered.
[3]Optional – my mom never uses it.
[4] I boil the cabbage for 15-20 minutes.

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