Old Fashioned Croatian Cabbage Rolls or Sarma is made with a mix of ground beef, pork and rice, rolled in fermented cabbage leaves.
Old Fashioned Croatian Cabbage Rolls or Sarma
Of all the Croatian cabbage recipes I know, this recipe for Old Fashioned Croatian Cabbage Rolls is my favorite. It brings back fond memories but is also a feast for your tastebuds. It’s so delish, I’ll bet it’ll become your family favorite, too!
Ever since I can remember, the holidays were spent at my Grandma Jenny and Grandpa Tony’s house. Their home wasn’t huge by today’s standards but it was warm and cozy and definitely welcoming. It was there I came to love and appreciate my family’s most sought after recipe: Sarma or Old Fashioned Croatian Cabbage Rolls.
My grandmother would make this dish for all of the major holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, because the family requested it so often and because (as I later found out) it’s a budget-friendly recipe that easily feeds a crowd.
Croatian or Yugoslavian Cabbage Rolls
When it came to naming this dish, I gave homage to my grandmother’s country of origin, but my grandfather’s family that came from Yugoslavia also made this dish. The truth is, many folks from Eastern Europe make some form of cooked cabbage rolls, whether fried or cooked, in tomato sauce or plain with sauerkraut. That’s the beauty of this dish. It’s versatile and family friendly, no matter your personal tastes.
Nevertheless, the tradition of making these sarma rolls was passed along to us grandkids and we each make it according to what we remember most.
For me, I try to follow the traditional recipe.
This recipe starts with a journey to our local grocer, Rupena’s where I get my sour head cabbage.
What’s sour head cabbage? It’s similar to the sauerkraut that you buy in the store, only it’s a whole cabbage head, not shredded leaves.
Depending upon the size of crowd I’m going to feed, that’s the size of cabbage I buy. So, for instance, if I’m just feeding less than 10 people, I’ll buy a small head of sauer head cabbage. For more than 10 but less than 25, I’ll buy a large head. Anything more than that and it’s two large heads.
1. Rinse the Sauer Head Cabbage
The most important part of this recipe is rinsing the cabbage leaves thoroughly. This is because the brine that the cabbage ferments in is super salty and bitter. You definitely don’t want to skimp on this step.
Here is the set up for the sink. (Don’t the strainers look like googley eyes?)
To release the cabbage leave, core the cabbage head by running a knife around the base of the cabbage and scoop out the core. When you do that, you can easily peel off the layers of cabbage down to the center.
Rinsing with cool water is key, as the cabbage is extremely salty. Still it’s the salty brine that makes it tastes so good. But I cannot caution you enough to not proceed any further without properly rinsing ALL of the leaves at least three times. Yup! I said three times!
Note: The one year I tried to shortcut rinsing my Sarma was a disaster. It was soooo salty that it was hardly palatable. So rinse, rinse and rinse again!
2. Prepare the Meat and Rice Mixture
While the cabbage leaves are drying, prepare the meat and rice mixture.
Start with equal amounts of ground beef and ground pork. To this add onion, garlic powder, Hungarian sweet paprika, a couple of eggs, breadcrumbs (I use Italian) and long grained rice. Mix this all by hand.
3. Fill and Roll the Cabbage Leaves
Now to fill the cabbage leaves: Take a cabbage leaf in hand and put in approximately one heaping tablespoon or so of the meat mixture. Fold the two sides together and then roll from the “core” end moving toward the edge of the cabbage leaf. (see Below)
You can see it isn’t difficult to make cabbage rolls. Repeat until you’ve used up the meat mixture or run out of cabbage leaves, whichever comes first.
It’s that simple!
4. Add Smoked Meat
Time to add your smoked meat to the roasting pan.
You can see I spread out the meat along the bottom of the Nesco roaster pan. For this recipe I used one smoked ham hock, sliced smoked kielbasa, hot and spicy Hungarian and Slovanian sausages..
The ham hock and sausages will infuse the cabbage leaves with lots of flavor plus provide another protein for this dish.
5. Add Cabbage Rolls and Sauerkraut
Start stacking your cabbage rolls from corner to corner in rows. Keep stacking until you have used up all of the cabbage leaves or meat, whichever comes first.
Finally, top the Sarma with one pound of fresh sauerkraut. This serves two purposes: 1.) It keeps the cabbage rolls from floating due to air pockets and 2.) It adds one more layer of flavor as the Sarma cooks down.
One thing you will need to do before you apply the sauerkraut to the roasting pan is to rinse it just like the sour head. Rinse it three times. Then spread it evenly on top of the Sarma.
Once you have completed this task, it’s time to add fresh waster to the pan. Pour the water until it just covers the Sarma, about an 1 inch or so over the cabbage.
6. Cook the Croatian Cabbage Rolls
Then, set the Nesco to cook at 350 degrees F for at least four hours.
Finally, the Sarma is ready. Yay!!!
The usual way to eat Old Fashioned Croatian Cabbage Rolls is to serve the Sarma with homemade mashed potatoes. I’ve added homemade soda bread but you could use fresh marble rye bread with butter if you’d like. The bread helps sop up the juices.
Here’s to your memory, Grandma Jenny and Mom! Enjoy!
Old Fashioned Croatian Cabbage Rolls (Sarma)
- 3 lb sour head cabbage cored, peeled, rinsed
- 1 lb sauerkraut rinsed
- 1 1/2 cup onion chopped
- 2 tbsp garlic powder
- 2 tbsp Hungarian sweet paprika
- 3 eggs beat
- 1 cup bread crumbs Italian blend
- 2 cups rice long grained, uncooked
- 1 1/2 lb ground chuck
- 1 1/2 lb ground pork
- 1 smoked ham hock
- 3 links Hungarian sausage cut into 1 inch pieces
- 3 links Slovenian sausage cut into 1 inch pieces
- 3 links smoked Kielbasa cut into 1 inch pieces
- Core, peel and rinse sour head cabbage 3 times, the same with the sauerkraut. Set each aside.
- In a large bowl, mix the rest of the ingredients, except ham hock and sausage, by hand.
- To a large Nesco, add smoked meat and sausage. Be sure to spread this evenly across the bottom of the Nesco.
- Begin to roll the cabbage by placing one leaf in hand and adding a tablespoon of meat-rice mixture at the thick end of the leaf. Tuck in both sides and roll toward the wide end of the leaf.
- Place each cabbage roll seam side down in large Nesco. Stack layer by layer.
- Cover evenly with reserved sauerkraut.
- Pour cool water over cabbage rolls, approximately 1 inch to 1 1/2 inch above it.
- Set Nesco at 350 degrees F and cook for about 4 hours. Cover. Add water if necessary.
- Serve with mashed potatoes and marbled, buttered rye bread. Enjoy!