Why sour cabbage sarma means Christmas to me – plus the recipe

It is 6 January 2011. I’ve made it back to Skopje, capital of North Macedonia, from London just in time for Orthodox Christmas, beating the heavy snowfall and fog. There are seven of us on my grandmother’s balcony on the 10th floor of the brutalist apartment building. Eight, if you count a large barrel of sour cabbages (and a few beetroot for colour and flavour) wintering out here in the cold. I have been dreaming about the dish that will be prepared with these cabbages.

We are huddled on the balcony to light a branch of yule oak for Badnik, our Christmas Eve. The wind is bracing. The view of snow-covered Skopje and the surrounding mountains at dusk is breathtaking. Sparks fly as the dry leaves kindle, bringing us a moment of welcome warmth. We can now begin our Badnik feast, one without meat, dairy or eggs, as this is the last day of the Nativity fast.

My grandmother has outdone herself, the table laden with her incredible food. We start with soda bread with a silver coin baked inside, which brings the promise of luck and a fruitful year for the coin finder. There is roast Lake Ohrid trout, tavče gravče, slow-baked Macedonian white beans, and turshija, vegetables pickled at the height of summer ripeness. There is also ajvar, the red pepper relish that’s called “Balkan caviar” and a real weakness of mine. I could go on. We finish with beautiful homemade sweets full of nuts and fruit.

The Badnik feast barely finished, my grandmother hurries to check on the food for Bozik, Christmas Day. There are tantalising smells already emanating from her kitchen. Weeks ago she had asked whether there was anything specific I wanted her to cook for me for Christmas Day and I had given her the same answer that I always did. Sour cabbage sarma. It’s my special request to her, something she loved making for me, and through which we each tried to make up for all our missed time together since London had become my home.

Little parcels of minced meat and rice, wrapped in her beautiful, beetroot-tinted blush-pink sour cabbage leaves. Smoked bacon and pork ribs are added, then it’s slowly simmered and lovingly tended over a few days. Finally, it’s drizzled with a sweet paprika oil and baked a little to crisp perfection just before serving. The little parcels mean so much to me, prepared with such love. There they are, the next day, looking particularly glorious on a re-laden table ready for our Christmas Day feast, right next to my place setting.

That was the last time I ate my grandmother’s sour cabbage sarma. Now I sit here in London years later, remembering, while planning my own Christmas Day feast for my little family. There will be a special place on our table reserved for those delicious little parcels. I can never replicate my grandmother’s sour cabbage sarma, but perhaps it is just enough to cook, to love, to remember.

Sour cabbage sarma recipe

Serves 4
For the
filling
2 tbsp sunflower (or other neutral) oil, for frying
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 leek, finely chopped
75g pancetta (or smoked bacon), finely diced
200g minced beef
125g minced pork
200g risotto rice (carnaroli or arborio)
Pinch of ground cumin (optional)
2 tbsp sweet paprika
½ tsp Bukovo pepper, Aleppo pepper or
pul biber (optional), plus extra for serving
½ tsp dr
ied oregano
1-2 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
1 tbsp bouillon/vegetable stock powder
Salt and pepper, to taste

For wrapping/cooking the sarma rolls
16-32 pickled cabbage leaves
25-50g smoked pancetta (or smoked bacon) slices, to place between rows of sarma
100g 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 oil until soft and translucent. Add the cubed pancetta and render until crispy. Add the minced meat and break up until browned. Turn the heat to low and add the cumin, sweet paprika, pepper/pul biber (if using), oregano, parsley and stock powder, stirring to combine. Add a splash of water to loosen if a little dry. 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 cabbage rolls: select your cabbage leaves, which you may want to wash and pat them dry if they have been heavily brined. It is best to use the largest leaves you have. Aim for the leaves to be approximately the same size so they cook uniformly. Very small leaves can be joined 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 the filling is used up. 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 for the top. Start to pack the sarma rolls tightly and place a small slice of smoked pancetta (or bacon) between each (if using). You will probably have two (or more) rows depending on the size of your dish. If using smoked pork ribs, nestle them among the cabbage rolls as you pack them into your casserole. Add the bay leaves. When all is packed in tightly, cover the rolls with any leftover cabbage leaves or 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) in the oven and cook at 170C (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 either drizzle the sweet paprika oil over the ready sarma and serve, or 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 to give each of the rolls a nice crisp top. Sprinkle with a little pepper or pul biber and enjoy with bread, cheese, pickles, preserves and winter salads.

Sour cabbage sarma is always best made the day before as the flavours develop beautifully with rest. The pork mince, smoked pancetta and ribs are completely optional and can be substituted with beef mince and/or smoked beef or simply left out. If leaving out the pork mince, increase the quantity of beef mince. The rolls can also be made vegan by omitting the meat entirely, and increasing the onion, leek, spices and herbs to taste.

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