Cabbage Rolls with Adjika

When I finally found time to make cabbage rolls from my fermented whole cabbage heads, I didn’t know where to begin. From Turkey south to the Levant, west to Greece, north through eastern Europe, and west again to Germany, cabbage rolls vary a lot. They usually include ground meat of some sort, and rice, although bulgur or other grain may be substituted. Tomato is usually incorporated, in forms that range from V8 Juice to canned soup to tomato paste. Other ingredients may include cilantro, mint, dill, basil, and quince (in a Turkish recipe); beans and fresh peppers (another Turkish recipe); mushrooms and parsley (Poland); onions and paprika (Hungary) carrot, celery, and parsnip (Russia), cinnamon, cumin, garlic, and pomegranate molasses (Levant); bacon and pork ribs (Serbia), and even mustard seed, ginger, and garum masala (an Indian cook who says cabbage rolls aren’t really Indian, though hers certainly are).

But Cristina from Moldova was the first person to tell me about fermenting whole cabbage, and my daughter, Rebecca, loved Cristina’s mom’s cabbage rolls, called sarmale, when Rebecca tasted them last spring. So we had to go Moldovan. The key ingredient in Moldovan sarmale, Cristina had told me, is adjika, a tomato-pepper sauce with garlic, horseradish, and apple added. Rebecca remembered carrots in the cabbage rolls and told me I must also use unrefined sunflower oil. These bits of information would have to do as a recipe, because we weren’t going to bother Cristina, who was (and is) busy with a new baby.

First I set some rice to soaking. Some people make cabbage rolls with raw rice and others with cooked rice; soaking seemed a good compromise. It would shorten the cooking time but still allow the rice to swell, filling out the rolls as they cooked.

My gogosari look-alike, a happy product of careless seed saving
My gogosari look-alike, a happy product of careless seed saving

The next day I fetched from the garage two pint jars of adjika. I made the adjika last summer according to instructions from Cristina’s mother, who had used a dinner plate as a measuring reference. Unfortunately I lacked an essential ingredient, gogosari peppers, which, Cristina had told me, are “meatier” than other sweet peppers, but in the garden I had a pimiento cross that looked very similar. I can’t know how closely my little peppers match gogosari peppers in taste, but my sauce turned out delicious. True pimientos might work well enough, too.

Here is my version of Cristina’s mom’s adjika recipe:

Adjika (Moldovan Tomato-Pepper Sauce) 

Hot as well as sweet peppers are required for this recipe. I used ripe pimientos de Padron, which have quite a bite, and I didn’t bother to seed them, but still the sauce turned out only mildly piquant. If you have scant tolerance for capsaicin, however, you should feel free to seed your hot peppers and even to substitute peppers that are barely piquant. 

Note that the USDA provides no recipe for homemade adjika, so I can’t give you an officially approved processing time. In Moldova the jars of hot sauce are simply capped and stored in a cool place, but I chose to process my adjika like salsa, in pint jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes. The pH of the finished sauce was 2.6. 

This tomato sauce with kick is good not only in cabbage rolls but on bread and pasta, in sandwiches, and with meat.

1 ½ pounds gogosari, pimiento, or other thick-fleshed sweet red peppers, tops and seeds removed
10 red hot peppers, such as pimientos de Padron, tops removed but seeds retained
6 pounds tomatoes
1 tart apple, cored
3 large garlic cloves
½ ounce peeled horseradish root
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup cider vinegar 

Cut the sweet and hot peppers, the tomatoes, the apple, and the garlic cloves into pieces, and grind the vegetables fine in a meat grinder. Put the ground mixture—which should have “the texture of sour cream,” Cristina says—into a large, nonreactive pot. Grate the horseradish, and add it to the pot along with the salt and vinegar. Cook the mixture uncovered over low heat for several hours, until the adjika is as thick as pizza sauce. Pour the sauce into five pint jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Cap the jars, and either process them in a boiling-water bath or let them cool and then store them in the refrigerator. 

For the sarmale filling, Cristina’s mother may use pork or possibly beef, I suppose. But I chose ground alpaca, because I had some handy, thanks to our local food swap. Since the meat was very lean, I used plenty of sunflower oil. I also added carrot, as Rebecca insisted, onion and garlic, as I suspected a Moldovan might, and cumin simply because I love it.

Here is my recipe for the stuffing:

Sarmale Filling 

6 tablespoons unrefined sunflower oil (available at Russian markets)
½ pound onions, diced small
½ pound carrots, diced small
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ cup adjika
2 pounds lean ground alpaca or other meat
1 cup long-grain rice, soaked in water to cover 8 to 24 hours
Salt

In a pot, heat ¼ cup of the oil, and sauté the onions until they are soft. Add the carrots, garlic, and cumin, and sauté the mixture until the garlic and cumin seeds release their aroma. Let the mixture cool. 

With your hands, thoroughly mix the cooked vegetables with the adjika, meat, rice, remaining 2 tablespoons oil, and salt. I used 1½ teaspoons salt, which was just the right amount, but you’ll need more if you’re using unfermented cabbage and less if you’re using heavily salted cabbage. 

Stuffing the cabbage leaves is surprisingly quick and pleasant if you have a helper or two. Rebecca and her friend Guillaume and I did the job together in ten minutes or so.

Stuffing and Cooking the Sarmale 

You can substitute water or meat or vegetable stock for some or all of the brine. This is a good idea if the brine is very salty or you aren’t terribly fond of the taste of sauerkraut.

1 very large or 2 or more smaller fermented whole cabbages
1½ cups adjika
2 cups brine from fermented cabbage, or water or stock
About 3½ cups water

Core the cabbages, and pull off the leaves one by one. If you’re using a very large cabbage, you may need to cut each leaf into pieces and plane or trim off the thick rib at the base of each leaf. I used six very small cabbages, whose leaves were mostly perfectly sized for small sarmale. Cover the bottom of a large, heavy pot with cabbage leaf fragments, and save more fragments for placing over the sarmale.

Put a little filling on the concave side of each leaf or leaf section; the exact amount of filling will depend on the size of the leaf and the desired size of your sarmale. Roll the leaf around the filling, folding in the sides as you would in rolling a burrito. Place the cabbage roll seam-side-down in the pot. Continue in this way, layering the rolls in the pot, until you have used all of the filling, Cover the rolls with the reserved cabbage scraps. Combine the adjika and brine, and pour the mixture over the cabbage rolls. Add enough water to cover the cabbage (heating the water first will speed the cooking).

Cover the pot, and set it over medium heat. When the contents begin to simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer the sarmale for 45 minutes. Before serving, take one out and taste it to be sure the rice is fully cooked.

sarmaleServing the Sarmale

 Adjika
Sour cream

Place several hot sarmale on each diner’s plate, and serve adjika and sour cream on the side. Alternatively, drain off some of the cooking liquid, mix it well with adjika and sour cream, and serve the mixture as a sauce.

Although the sarmale are irresistibly tasty, you will probably have many left over; four of us could finish only about a third of them at a sitting. So the next day and maybe again the day after that, you might fry some sarmale in a little sunflower oil. Again, serve the hot sarmale with adjika and sour cream.

How to Pickle Cabbages Whole

fermented cabbagesWhen years ago my young Moldovan friend Cristina asked me if I’d ever fermented whole cabbages, I just looked at her dubiously. I’d never even heard of fermented whole cabbages. Could salt really penetrate through an intact cabbage before rot set in? I wondered if Moldovans simply tucked little second-crop cabbages into crocks of shredded cabbage while making sauerkraut. But I’d never heard of that practice, either.

So when my daughter sent me pictures of big fermented whole cabbages in a Moldovan market, I had to figure out how to make such things. I found an article that two Cornell researchers had published in 1961 with the help of their Yugoslav exchange student, Gordana Niketic. As Gordana had apparently explained to her mentors, “In Yugoslavia, particularly in the republic of Serbia, whole heads of white or red cabbage are packed in salt brine. Although sometimes the cabbage cores are scored crosswise before packing the heads in brine, more often the heads are packed with no alteration of the cores.” Just as in Moldovan, the fermented cabbage leaves were used to make meat-and-rice filled rolls, or sarma, an originally Turkish word for food wrapped in leaves; the Moldovan term is sarmale or galush. Yugoslavs also baked slices or chunks of the cabbage with turkey, goose, or pork and served the cabbage cold as a salad. After fermenting whole red cabbages, they would drink the pretty pink brine as an appetizer.

Since methods of fermenting whole cabbages varied from one Yugoslav household to another, Gordana and the Cornell researchers decided to experiment. The first year they packed whole cored cabbages tightly into barrels and added brine at three different strengths. The second year, they packed a barrel the same way, at the highest brine strength from the year before, but with uncored cabbages. The third year they packed a barrel as I’d imagined, by mixing dry-salted shredded cabbage with whole small cabbages placed among the shreds.

The best whole-cabbage kraut from the first year, the three concluded, was made with the strongest brine, 3.5 percent, “calculated from the combined weight of brine and cabbage.”* Whereas the least salty cabbages were soft throughout, and the medium-salty cabbages were soft at the core, the saltiest cabbages “showed only slightly soft cores and their leaves were firm and flavorful,” with “an enjoyable blend of taste and mellowness.” When the leaves were used for sarma, their taste perfectly complemented the meat filling.           

Far superior than even the saltiest version from the first year, at least in the judgment of “a former native of Yugoslavia” (Gordana? Someone else?), was the whole-cabbage kraut made in the second year, from uncored cabbage. So, coring turned out to be unnecessary and possibly also detrimental to flavor. The researchers concluded that the best whole-cabbage kraut was made from uncored cabbages pickled at a brine strength of 3.0 to 3.5 percent—calculated, again, as the weight of the salt to the weight of cabbage and brine.

The third-year kraut, made from small whole cabbages packed with shredded cabbage and dry salt, proved a disappointment. The quicker fermentation that resulted made this kraut more pungent and sour—like ordinary dry-salted, shredded sauerkraut, I suppose.

I began my own whole-cabbage pickling experiment late last fall. Because most of my fall cabbages had been damaged by freezing weather, I used the second growth from spring cabbage plants, seven very small heads harvested before the weather turned very cold. I sliced each stem at the base of the head, leaving the core intact, and half-filled a 10-liter crock with the cabbages. I added 10 tablespoons pickling salt dissolved in 5 quarts water, to make an approximately 3.5-percent brine, calculated—because I’d read the Cornell study too carelessly—in the way that’s familiar to me, as the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine. In other words, my brine was weak, perhaps half the strength recommended by the Cornell team. I weighted the cabbages, and, a week or so later, I skimmed the brine once. The small amount of yeast growth didn’t continue.

A little more than two months after immersing the cabbages in their brine, I took them all out and examined them. Some of them showed a little softening around the edge of the core, and the largest one, 4½ inches across, had softened at the center of the leaves as well. If I’d used bigger cabbages, they might have rotted. Perhaps I could have prevented the softening by ending the fermentation sooner. But I simply cut away the soft parts, and all that remained tasted sweet, mellow, and very mildly tart and salty—really much nicer than typical shredded sauerkraut.

Last night one of the fermented cabbages made an excellent dinner salad, sliced and mixed with toasted walnuts, black pepper, and unrefined sunflower oil. No vinegar was called for; the cabbage was already tart. Walnut oil or roasted hazelnut oil might be nice in place of sunflower oil, Robert suggest, and maybe next time we’ll add some smoked meat.

The rest of the cabbages are resting in their brine in a gallon jar in the refrigerator. My next challenge will be to make some of them into sarma, or sarmale. Or maybe I should say golabki (in Polish), golubtsy (in Russian), malfoof (in Arabic), kohlrouladen or krautwickel (in German), or töltött káposzta (in Hungarian). There are a lot of other names, too, because cabbage rolls—made from fermented, briefly brined, or simply blanched cabbage—are eaten throughout much of the world. Every region has favorite ingredients, and every cook seems to have a unique recipe. I guess it’s time for me to develop my own.

 

*In other words, 3.5 percent was the strength not of the initial brine but of the finished pickle. Because the amount of brine needed to cover whole cabbages can vary greatly, depending on the relation between the size of the cabbages and the breadth of the barrel, the researchers controlled the salt content with a much more accurate measurement than that of initial brine strength (the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine). To do as they did, put the cabbages into the container, weighing each and noting the weight, in metric if you have a digital scale. Cover the cabbages with water, measuring the water in liters as you add it and noting the volume. Then calculate how much the water weighs: Every liter weighs a kilogram. Add the weight of the water and cabbage, in kilograms. To determine how much salt to use, use the following formula:

Weight of salt = Weight of cabbage and water x  x/100-x, where x is the desired brine strength. So, for a brine strength of 3.5 percent, your formula becomes

Weight of salt = Weight of cabbage and water x 3.5/96.5

Remove enough of the water from your container to dissolve the salt in, and pour this brine back over the cabbages.

If this calculation seems too much bother, I suggest simply fermenting your cabbages in a strong brine—say, about 1 cup fine salt per 1 gallon water. You’ll need at least half as much brine, by volume, as the volume of the cabbages. For example, if your cabbages rise three-quarters of the way up a 4-gallon crock—to the 3-gallon level—you’ll need at least 1½ gallons brine. Mix up more brine as needed so that the cabbages are well immersed.