Cabbage rolls: the story of the beloved dish we eat at Easter

There is something very enticing in the unadulterated simplicity of some dishes. There’s arguably no sophistication, no gimmicks, just a lot of hard work and some fingers crossed hoping that the dish will please your loved ones. As the days go by, this food miraculously gets better, and its minimalist components come together to create a symphony of deep flavors which defies the initial humbleness of the dish. How can something so simple (some might even say unrefined) render so much delightful goodness? 🙂

Such is the case – and the paradox! – of cabbage rolls. It’s a simple dish which comprises a rather small number of ingredients, and it does not have the sophistication I have learned to appreciate in recent years. And yet, once you take a bite out of the succulent ground meat and experience the amazing taste of cabbage-flavored bacon sporting a delicate hint of bay leaves, you learn that even the most basic dishes can conquer your stomach and inspire your mind.

Cabbage rolls are the quintessential Easter dish in our family, yet as I have recently discovered, this is not a dish which belongs to Eastern Europe exclusively. Variations of it can be found in many cultures around the globe, from Italy to Japan and from Sweden to a myriad of Middle Eastern countries. According to most sources I consulted, cabbage roll recipes have flourished in the Balkans under the influence and occupation of the former Ottoman Empire. Unsurprisingly, the Romanian word for cabbage roll (“sarma”) comes from Turkish.

My family usually makes cabbage rolls (aka “sarmale”) with homemade sour cabbage leaves. I know sour cabbage leaves are hard to find at the local grocery stores, and even harder to make at home, so for this post I resorted to using fresh savoy cabbage leaves, which my mom cooked in a pot of salted boiling water for about 5 minutes or until soft.

We usually fill the cabbage leaves with a mixture of ground beef and pork. Still, with spring around the corner, I wanted to create a lighter rendition of this dish, so I used a combination of ground chicken and pork, to which I added white rice, chopped onion, a bit of water at room temperature, and salt and pepper.

Once the cabbage leaves have cooled, my mom used a knife to remove the tough stems…

… and then filled each leaf with about one tablespoon of meat mixture.

When it comes to folding the leaf around the meat, different people have different approaches/techniques – I can tell you straight away that the way mom does it is miles different from the way mother-in-law does it! What’s important is to make sure the meat mixture is packed securely inside, otherwise chances are the filling will get out during the cooking process. Whichever way works for you is the best way – and, as usual, practice makes perfect, so I encourage you to keep practising till you get it right: 😉

We managed to make quite a few cabbage rolls…

…36 to be precise!

Once mom and I finished stuffing the cabbage leaves, we covered the bottom of a cooking pot with shredded savoy cabbage (this doesn’t need boiling in advance), and then added a first layer of cabbage rolls, neatly arranged next to each other.

We continued with another layer of shredded cabbage, pieces of freshly cooked bacon and bay leaves…

… and then with a second layer of cabbage rolls. We finished off with a layer of shredded cabbage, bacon and bay leaves. To sum up, we had three layers of shredded cabbage with two layers of cabbage rolls in-between 😉

We always cover the uncooked dish with a small lid to keep the moisture in:

The cabbage will cook in about two hours. Half-way during cooking, we usually spread a 14.5 can of diced tomatoes on top evenly with a spoon. The tomatoes provide a nice boost of acidity, flavor and last but not least color:

Two hours later, the cabbage rolls are moist and tender and ready to be served. Now it’s time to adjust seasoning accordingly and to temper the acidity of the sauce by adding about 1/2 tbsp sugar, if needed.

You can serve the cabbage rolls on their own with extra crunchy bacon on top. Usually however, we eat them in combination with sour cream, whose mildness counteracts the natural acidity of the cabbage beautifully:

We sometimes also eat cabbage rolls with polenta – believe me when I say the cabbage rolls+sour cream+polenta combo is unbeatable!

I hope you enjoy these cabbage rolls at least as much as we do. To us, this is not just any dish, but our national dish – a dish that speaks about our culture, our history and our family’s past in profound and lasting ways. It’s also “the best food ever,” according to our daughter anyway 🙂

Print Recipe
Cabbage rolls
Instructions
  1. Bring a pot of salted water to boil over a medium heat. Take the leaves of one cabbage and boil them the hot salted water for about 5 minutes or until soft. Set the leaves aside to cool.
  2. In a mixing bowl add the ground pork and chicken, chopped onion, rice, water, 2 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper. Mix until well combined.
  3. Once the cabbage leaves have cooled, remove the tough stems using a knife and then fill each leaf with about one tablespoon of meat mixture. Make sure the meat is packed securely inside, otherwise chances are the filling will get out during the cooking process.
  4. Cut the leaves of the other cabbage (which doesn't need boiling in advance) into shreds. Cover the bottom of a cooking pot with a layer of shredded cabbage, and then add a first layer of cabbage rolls, neatly arranged next to each other. Continue with another layer of shredded cabbage, 4oz freshly cooked bacon cut into pieces and 2 bay leaves, and then with a second layer of cabbage rolls. Finish off with a layer of shredded cabbage, the remaining bacon and the 3 remaining bay leaves. To sum up, you must have three layers of shredded cabbage with two layers of cabbage rolls in-between!
  5. Cook the cabbage rolls over a low heat. One hour into cooking, spread diced tomatoes on top evenly with a spoon.
  6. After two hours cooking it total, the cabbage rolls are moist and tender and ready to be served. Taste and adjust seasoning accordingly by adding 2 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper, if needed. If the sauce is too acidic, add 1/2 tbsp sugar. Stir well, taste again, and make any other needed adjustments, if at all.
  7. Serve the cabbage rolls warm, with extra crunchy bacon on top or with sour cream and/or polenta on the side.
  8. Enjoy!

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