out with the old, in with the gnu...?

okay, so it's 3 weeks later, but i'm still thinking about the first meal i had this year.  foregoing all the usual conventions regarding lucky foods (i have never had a fondness for black-eyed peas, regardless of how nicely one disguises their presence), i try to start each new year with one meal that i truly love.  this time around, i decided to opt for one of my favorite dishes, a slight perversion of the one-pot meal concept in that it requires that you begin with one enormous pot and an assortment of ingredients that will make most modest meat-eaters blush.

CAUTION: this content is not for the weak of heart or appetite.  if you have a moral or religious objection to eating tasty animals... look away!  i present to you, a most meatiful new year meal and wishes for a tasy 2012.

okay... so it's a stuffed cabbage roll.  i can feel the immediate disappointment at those two words, but i assure you, this is no mere cabbage roll.  ever since my first encounter with sarma some years ago, i knew it would fast become one of my favorite foods.  this classic dish is featured in cuisines throughout the Middle East and Central/Eastern Europe with each region  providing their own variation on the theme.  i was introduced to sarma via Croatian cuisine, and my version aims to remain true to that style.

the two defining components of this meal are the soured cabbage leaves and the smoked meats that together give it its characteristic flavor.  the cabbage is a whole head that has been turned,intact, to sauerkraut.  in lieu of a whole soured cabbage, you can use either whole leaves of sauerkraut, usually sold rolled up in jars of brine next to the shredded sauerkraut, or you can opt for fresh cabbage leaves that have been wilted to enable easy rolling.  most recipes for cabbage rolls suggest either freezing then thawing the whole head to wilt the leaves, or immersing the whole head into a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds, prying off the leaves one at a time in between blanchings.  when using fresh cabbage, the freezer method is definitely the way to go... unless you prefer to play 'bobbing for cabbage' in a large pot of boiling water.

the meat consists of ground pork for the filling and an assortment of smoked meats and sausages for the milieu. the fresh pork was ground by the butcher with the addition of a small portion of smoked meat for extra flavor, but that step is optional.  the smoked meat pictured consists of baby back ribs and neck bones and a secret ingredient to be discussed later.  the assortment of sausages includes sweet and spicy kranjska klobasa, a type of kielbasa, and spicy Italian sausage.  any variety of kielbasa and sausages may be used with acceptable results.  all of the smoked meats and sausages picture here were freshly removed from the freezer, hence the dusting of frostiness on the surface.  the remaining ingredients include rice, onions, sauerkraut, smoked paprika, salt, fresh ground pepper, an egg, and fresh thyme (optional).  i really like the spark of fresh herbiness the thyme adds to the dish.  you can use your nails or the back of a small knife to scrape the leaves from the stem for the filling.

to begin,  carefully peel off the layers of cabbages until you have a pile of as many large, intact leaves as your head of cabbage allows.  the number of leaves will determine how many rolls you can potentially make.  reserve the heart of the cabbage to add to the pot, or, if using fresh cabbage, the inner portion can be saved for another dish... maybe a hearty soup?


place the ground pork in a large bowl and add chopped onions, rice, egg, paprika, salt, pepper, and fresh thyme.  you can also opt to add some garlic powder or crushed fresh garlic. 


i use a blend of red, green, and black peppercorns and whole coriander seeds ground using the handy mortar and pestle.  sure, a pepper grinder or... gasp... pre-ground pepper would be faster, but where's the fun in that?

at this point, roll up your sleeves and get stuck in with clean hands until you have completely combined the mixture.  try to avoid excessive squeezing or pressing.  now we're ready to make rolls.  

i prefer to divide the mixture in advance of beginning the rolling process.  my obsessive-compulsive tendency requires evenness in all things, so i weighed the mixture using a digital kitchen scale, and brought it up to a round number by the addition of an extra handful of rice.  in this case, my mixture weighed 1600g (i use metric measures to blend in to my Canadian surroundings), so i used 100g of filling for each roll, which is roughly 1/2 c of mixture.  be sure to take the number of cabbage leaves into account  before beginning to divide the meat.  one head of cabbage should provide enough large leaves for 10-16 rolls.  keep in mind that the rice will expand, so don't over stuff your rolls, or they can explode in the pot.  

working with one portion of filling at a time, shape into a log slightly smaller than the width of your cabbage leaf.  place the log on the stem end of the leaf, and make the first roll to cover the filling.  if using fresh cabbage leaves, you can use a small, sharp knife to shave off part of the tough central rib on the back of each leaf.  toss the trimmings into the bottom of the pot.  nothing goes to waste in this dish.  

flip up the sides of the leaf to prevent loss of filling, and continue to roll until you have a snug packet.  repeat until you have used up all the filling.  any leftover cabbage leaves can be tossed into the bottom of the pot at this point.  we have all the parts necessary to create a fantastic batch of sarma, but if we are to take this meal over the top and into the realm of sublime deliciousness, it's time to bring out the secret-no-more ingredient.  

just when it seems this dish could not get any more meatiful, here comes happiness in the form of salty, smokey perfection.  speck is a cold-smoked ham, with a flavor that is a cross between prosciutto and a dry-cured Virginia ham.  it can be used in much the same manner as prosciutto, including eating as is, sliced paper-thin, or as a very sophisticated replacement for bacon.  the rind is very tough, and is usually removed before use, but given the long, slow cooking required for sarma, the rind should be left in place.  cut the speck into large cubes and carve up the slab of smoked ribs.  all the parts are now in place to begin filling the pot.  

place a layer of cabbage leaves or sauerkraut on the bottom of a large stock pot or dutch oven, and begin to layer in the rolls.  mix each layer with one or two sausages and a portion of the smoked meat.  arrange each layer so the rolls are packed in tightly enough that they will not unravel once the liquid is added, but with enough room to expand slightly as the rice cooks.  as absurd as it may sound, use the pieces of meat as packing material to fill in any large gaps along the perimeter of the pot and in between the rolls.  

i also tuck a few sprigs of thyme along the sides as i continue to build the layers.

spread some of the sauerkraut between each layer, finishing with a layer of sauerkraut on to top.  pour any remaining sauerkraut liquid into the pot and fill with enough water to cover the contents.   there should be at least a few inches of headroom to allow for expansion of the rice and some slight floating of the rolls in the cooking liquid. bring to a boil, and reduce the heat to a low simmer.  given the volume and density of the rolls, it is important to get the liquid to a boil before reducing the heat, but be careful not to leave it at a boil for too long, or the rolls can begin to unravel in the turbulence.  cook 3 1/2 to 4 hours, beginning the timing after you have reduce it to a simmer.  you may need to add some water from time to time, but be mindful that the rolls will want to float in the fluid, so do not add too much at a time, or you risk ending up with a large pot of sarma soup.  


allow the rolls to cool slightly in the pot before serving up  with a few pieces of assorted meat and a splash of cooking liquid.  the best part of this meal is that after all the work, they freeze very well.  divide between freezer-safe container, allow to cool to room temperature, then cover tightly and freeze.  a delicious meal at the ready.  to reheat place sarma, frozen or defrosted overnight in the refrigerator, in a pan with a splash of water, cover, and heat over a low flame.