This particular kitchen project started out as a way to use a quart jar of sauerkraut that was over-fermented enough that it needed to be cooked, but it became a quest for a childhood flavor memory. My mother used to make Serbian stuffed cabbage dish called sarma and I’d always meant to make it. My mom never cooked hers with sauerkraut, but someone had put it in my head that some cultures in Eastern Europe cook the dish with sauerkraut. I toyed with the idea of fermenting the cabbage leaves before wrapping the meat up in them, but decided the sauerkraut was sufficient.
My sister was visiting, so I enlisted her help in trying to recreate the dish from memory (and a little help from the internets for quantities). My mom’s dish was basically ground beef, onion, egg, and uncooked rice stuffed into cabbage leaves that had been boiled to soften them and then cooked with a tomato sauce. I don’t remember how she made the tomato sauce, but I remember it being a little sweet and very thin and smooth, not chunky—almost like tomato juice. Recipes on the internet included ingredients like V-8, tomato juice, ketchup, and other convenience foods. Knowing my mom, she probably used a convenience product. I settled on making a quick sauce with canned, crushed tomatoes, with a little ketchup added, for that sweet taste of home.
I have to thank my sister for saving the dish from my gourmet intentions. In my cooking world, if you take extra steps to add more flavor, and spend more time, it must be better. My sister comes from mom’s school of cooking, where it has to be easy and streamlined, or it won’t get made. I briefly thought about trying to make it “better” by browning the meat and sautéing the onions, but that would have ruined it because the whole idea is for the meat to cook in one piece and the flavors to meld with the cabbage, as with any stuffed meat package that is cooked using wet heat, including Chinese dumplings and dolmas.
The other thing I did that mom wouldn’t have was to use the best beef available to me, the Prather Ranch ground beef I buy from the farmers’ market. I don’t eat feedlot beef and I think the Prather, at 4% fat has the right ratio for moist, succulent filling. What we ended up with was truly delicious and actually very easy to make. What I thought was a complicated dish, is actually fairly quick to put together. It just takes a long time to cook, but you can do something else, like play Scrabble, while it cooks.
Here’s the recipe:
1 head of green cabbage
1 1/2 pounds of ground beef
1/2 cup uncooked, long grain white rice
1/2 cup minced onion
1 egg, beaten
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 quart sauerkraut (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup diced onion
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
6 Tablespoons (or so) of ketchup (optional)
Bring about 3 inches of salted water to boil in a large pot. Core the cabbage and put it in the pot with the lid on. Cook for about 12 minutes, turning once. Remove and drain until cool enough to handle. Reserve the cabbage water In a large bowl.
Mix together the beef, rice, onion, egg, salt, and pepper until just blended.
In a medium saucepan, warm the olive oil. Add the onion and sauté until soft. Add the tomatoes and salt, stir and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 15 minutes while you stuff the rolls. Add the ketchup and salt gradually, to taste.
To stuff the rolls, carefully peel the large leaves from the head of cabbage. Lay them out on a flat surface. Spoon out about 3 tablespoons of the beef mixture, depending on the size of the cabbage leaves. Roll each leaf up like a burrito and secure at the seam with a toothpick. Line the bottom of a stove and oven safe pot with sauerkraut, if using. Top with the rolls, layering them. If you don’t have enough room for all the rolls, use another pot, dividing the rolls and sauerkraut up among them. Pour about a cup of cabbage water into the tomato sauce to thin it out a little. Pour the thinned tomato sauce over the rolls and bring to a simmer on top of the stove.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes. Transfer to the oven and cook for 1 1/2 hours.