I call this sarma (od kisel kupus) or sarma from sour/pickled cabbages. You may call it dolma (Turkey, Greece, Cyrpus), sarmale (Romania), holubtsi (Ukraine), gołąbki (Poland), kåldomar (Sweden), kohlrouladen (Germany) and so on. The list is truly endless. A world united with their love of stuffing sour cabbage leaves. The humble cabbage elevated to a dish so delicious, many of us who have grown up with it still daydream about it. This is my ultimate winter and festive comfort food. The one dish I would eat every day until the end of time. I wrote an article about this dish for The Guardian and what it means to me so I won’t go on, other than to say that there are countless variants of this dish but this is just my attempt at recreating my grandmother’s sour cabbage sarma. She had a very special way of pickling her cabbages to include a little beetroot in the pickling barrel and give them a delicate flavour and a blush pink hue. It is a very forgiving dish, and what I mean by that is feel free to adjust the contents of the little sour cabbage parcels to suit your preference. All it takes is a little love, patience and time.
For the filling
2 tbsp sunflower/neutral oil, for frying
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 leek, finely chopped
75 g pancetta or smoked bacon, finely diced
200 g minced beef
125 g minced pork
200 g risotto rice (carnaroli or arborio)
Pinch of ground cumin
2 tbsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp Bukovo pepper / Aleppo pepper or pul biber
1/2 tsp dry oregano
1-2 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
1 tbsp Bouillon / vegetable stock powder
Salt + pepper to taste
For wrapping / cooking the sarma rolls
16-32 pickled cabbage leaves
25-50 g smoked pancetta (or smoked bacon) slices, to place between rows of sarma (optional)
100 g smoked pork ribs (optional)
3-4 bay leaves
For the topping (optional)
3 tbsp sunflower or olive oil
1 tbsp sweet paprika
- Make the sarma filling. In a heavy based pan over medium heat, sweat the finely chopped onion and leek in the sunflower (or other neutral) oil until soft and translucent. Add the cubed pancetta and render until crispy taking care not to burn the onions and leeks. Add the minced meat and break it up until completely browned. Turn the heat to low and add the cumin, sweet paprika, Bukovo pepper/Aleppo pepper/pul biber (if using), the oregano, parsley and stock powder, stirring to combine well through the meat mixture. Add a splash of water to loosen if a little dry. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste, taking care not to overseason as the pickled cabbage leaves will be salty. Then add the rice; it simply needs to be coated in the juices from the mixture, not cooked. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
- Prepare your cabbage rolls. Select your cabbage leaves. If they have been heavily brined, you may want to wash and pat them dry before using. It is best to use the largest leaves you have. Aim for the leaves to be approximately the same size so they cook uniformly. If you have very small leaves you can join them together to make one roll. If a leaf has a thick stem that would make rolling difficult, remove this keeping the leaf intact (reserve any cut offs). Place 2-3 tbsp of the filling at the base of each leaf, start to roll away from you then fold over the sides, and roll until you reach the end of the leaf. Set aside on a large plate. Repeat until you use up your filling. If you run out of pickled cabbage leaves, the filling can be used to make vine leaf rolls (dolma) or stuff any other vegetables (peppers, aubergines, courgettes, onions).
- If you have spare cabbage leaves, or stem offcuts, use these to line the base of a large oven proof lidded casserole dish. Reserve some leaves to top. Start to pack your sarma rolls tightly and place a small slice of smoked pancetta (or bacon) between each (if using). You will likely have two (or more) rows depending on the size of your casserole dish. If using smoked pork ribs, nestle them among the cabbage rolls as you pack them into your casserole. Add your bay leaves. When all packed in tightly, cover the rolls with any leftover cabbage leaves (a kind of cabbage leaf cartouche). If you do not have any leaves left you can use some greaseproof paper. Cover with water making sure all the rolls are submerged. Place a small heat-proof plate over the top (this is to stop the cabbage rolls moving and unravelling during cooking). Place the casserole dish (lid on) into an oven and cook at 170C / Gas 3 (or lower) for at least 4-6 hours. Keep checking and topping up with water throughout cooking, they must not dry out.
- When the sarma has finished cooking, prepare the topping. Heat the oil in a small pan. Add the sweet paprika and remove from the heat immediately. You are simply flavouring the oil. At this point you can either drizzle the sweet paprika oil over the ready sarma and eat. Or you can transfer the rolls (gently) to a baking dish with the smoked pancetta and ribs (if used) and all the cooking juices and drizzle a little of the sweet paprika oil over each roll, then place the baking dish in the oven for 10-15 minutes at 200C / Gas 6 to give each of the rolls a nice crisp top. Sprinkle with a little Bukovo pepper / Aleppo pepper or pul biber and enjoy with beautiful breads, cheeses, pickles, preserves, and winter salads.
- Sour cabbage sarma is always best made the day before as the flavours develop beautifully with rest. The use of pork mince and smoked pancetta and ribs is completely optional and this can be substituted with beef mince and/or smoked beef or simply left out. If leaving out the pork mince, upscale the quantity of the beef mince. They can also be made vegan by omitting the meat entirely, upscale the onion, leek, spices and herbs to your taste.