Sarmale is a Romanian staple food. There are variations in Eastern Europe and I will try some of them in the future, but now I’m sharing the Romanian version I grew up with. Sarmale are made for special occasions, they are a course at weddings and funerals, are made for Easter and Christmas. Usually they are made with cabbage leaves in brine and filled with mince meat, and this is the version I made, but I used vegan mince instead of meat. There are vegan alternatives, made with rice and, rarely, mushrooms, made during lent when meat is off the menu.
Sarmale are traditionally served with polenta, here is my polenta recipe with details on how to make it. Besides polenta, this dish can be served with sour cream and pickled hot peppers.
For the ingredients you need to go to an ethnic/international shop where you can find whole leaves of cabbage in brine. These can be made in Romania but also in other Eastern European countries.
Ingredients for 3-4 servings of sarmale:
– 1 big jar of cabbage leaves in brine
– 1 pack of vegan mince
– 50g white rice
– 50g tomato paste
– 2 spoons oil
– dried parsley
– dried thyme
– dried basil
Pre-cook the rice by scolding it in boiling water. Drain and leave to cool down slightly.
In a bowl, mix the mince with the rice, the oil, and the spices. In a small bowl, mix half of the tomato paste with a bit of water, about 2-3 spoons. Pour it over the mince and mix with a spoon until all the ingredients are incorporated.
Take all the cabbage leaves out and spread them on a chopping board. Cut them in equal sizes, slightly bigger than the size of your palm. Take a leaf of cabbage and spread it out on your hand. With the other hand take mince mix and put it on the cabbage leaf. Fold a side and the top of the leaf over the mince, then roll it. Tuck in the ends. Repeat until you use all the mince and cabbage.
Chop any remaining cabbage and what you’ve cut before making the sarmale. In an oven dish put half of the chopped cabbage on the bottom. Place the sarmale on top of the chopped cabbage. Put the rest of the chopped cabbage on top. Now, in a bowl, mix the remaining tomato paste with water, about 300ml. Pour the tomato sauce over the sarmale. If these are not covered, then pour a bit more water until all the sarmale are covered in liquid.
Pre-heat the oven at 180C or 160C for fan assisted ovens. Put the dish in the oven and bake for an hour. Remove and have a look if the cabbage is softer, if not, turn the dish and leave it for another half an hour or more. I baked mine for almost two hours this time. Cooking times depend on how soft the cabbage leaves are. The good thing is that you can’t really overbake sarmale.