Thanks to a Vodice chef, Luka, and his family, my culinary travels through Croatia introduced me to the flavorful traditional dishes from across the country. Varied by region to reflect local ingredients, each dish seemed to hold a tale of family and journeys and heritage.
While it was in Luka’s restaurant where I first experienced his Teta Ana’s sarma (cabbage rolls), it was actually in Ana’s kitchen where I learned to make the dish. By then, the house was owned by Ana’s granddaughter, Katrina, and while the kitchen had been remodeled several times, it remained large and inviting to accommodate an ever expanding family at Sunday dinners.
Luka’s introduction to Katrina meant an introduction to the entire family living in the vicinity and Sunday evening dinner meant Ana’s sarma. As I watched Katrina deftly prepared what seemed like an endless amount of cabbage rolls, I attempted to grasp both ingredients and methods. Of course, there was no recipe. This was a skill and dish passed from generation to generation by demonstration.
Once she had a table covered with cabbage rolls, the sauce was quickly prepared and the dish assembled. Layer upon layer of cabbage rolls were interspersed with sauce and sauerkraut in the largest roaster pan I could have ever imagined. It took both of us to load it into her massive oven. Then the waiting began. Hours upon hours of baking ensued.
Through the afternoon, cousin after cousin arrived with countless additional culinary contributions, and I realized Luka had created the perfect Croatian culinary experience. It was not simply about the food. It is so much more about the family.
The moment arrived. Tasked with removing the enormous roaster from the oven, two of Katrina’s male cousins turned the effort into somewhat of a production, apparently a common occurrence. I will admit. I was impressed with their ability to lift the roaster from the oven while not allowing so much as a drop of juice to spill over onto the floor.
Katrina quickly pushed everyone out of the kitchen save me. With a sly wink, she placed one of the rolls in a small dish, grabbed two forks and motioned for me to follow her into the pantry. Together we sampled the first sarma just as Ana had done with her when she was a child.
Sarma is a hearty dish perfect for a cold winter’s day. In recreating this dish, though, I wanted to achieve three things. First, mimic the flavor of the dish produced by Katrina; second, adapt everything to a much smaller scale; and third, make it such that could be enjoyed year round without feeling the heaviness of a plate full of cabbage rolls.
In this recipe, with the exception of exchanging the original white rice for wild rice, all the ingredients are traditional as presented for the filling with the result being the flavor of Katrina’s. The addition of the boiler onions gives a fantastic counter flavor to the sauerkraut tomato sauce.
The recipe has been scaled to the point it could serve as a hearty dinner for two or appetizers for four.
By creating miniature cabbage rolls and providing two as a serving along with one boiler onion, the dish does not carry the heaviness as when served as an entrée and provides a perfect introduction to a Croatian culinary Experience.
1 medium size head green cabbage
4 medium boiler onions
¾ pound ground sirloin
¼ c chopped onion
½ c wild rice
½ t kosher salt
¼ t black pepper, freshly ground
1 (28 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
1 (16 ounce) jar sauerkraut
2 shallots, sliced thin
Fill a large soup pot half full of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce to low simmer. Cut core from head of cabbage and insert fork into center.
Place cabbage head into pot of water. Cook 2 minutes, turn and cook and additional 2 minutes. Fill sink with cold water. Using a pot holder to avoid burning hands, use fork to lift cabbage from pot. Carefully peel leaves from cabbage into cold water. Repeat process until you have 8 large leaves. (Only 4 are needed for this recipe but the leaves have a tendency to tear. Doing 8 allows for any unacceptable leaves.) It may be necessary to make additional core cuts to release leaves.
Remove cabbage leaves from cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Place on cutting board. Carefully remove stem with a sharp knife. Cut leaves in half. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine ground beef, onion, rice, egg, salt and pepper.
Form meat mixture into 8 egg shaped balls. Place one meat ball on end of one half leaf.
Roll leaf over meat, folding in sides while rolling, until meat is completely encased.
Continue process until you have 8 small cabbage rolls.
Place the 4 onions in the hot water remaining in the soup pot. Leave in the pot for 2 minutes, rolling with wooden spoon to submerge and ensure all sides receive heat. Remove onions. Cut off top and bottom. Slide from skin.
Pre-heat oven to 350°. Combine tomatoes and tomato juice in a medium bowl. Spread ½ cup mixture in bottom of 2 quart casserole.
Place cabbage rolls and onions atop the tomato mixture.
Cover rolls with sauerkraut.
Cover sauerkraut with remaining tomato mixture and sliced shallots.
Over casserole with lid or foil. Place in pre-heated oven. Bake for 90 minutes. Rotating casserole half way through cooking.
Remove casserole from oven. Cabbage rolls may be placed in refrigerator at this point for several hours or up to 24 hours. To serve, continue as outlined below.
Carefully remove cabbage rolls from sauce and place on paper towels to drain.
Heat a medium skillet over medium high heat. Add 1 teaspoon olive oil. Once oil has heated, add four cabbage rolls. Sear for 2-3 minutes until browned. Turn and sear an additional 2-3 minutes. Repeat with remaining 4 cabbage rolls and 1 teaspoon olive oil.
Place two cabbage rolls and one onion on each of 4 serving plates. Evenly divide the sauce between the plates.