A Bucket of Bounty: Balkan Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

It’s been a year since I have posted here. Fortunately, we are all healthy. The COVID-19 pandemic gave a lot of time for reflection. I guess that could be seen as a curse or a gift. I chose to take it as a gift, taking time to slow down, evaluate what is important, and move forward. We had a lot more family time which I really have cherished.

We developed a ritual of playing foosball every night after dinner. It’s my wife and me versus our son. He made a point of routinely routing us. We won from time to time, but it wasn’t pretty. Still, we worked to keep it fun and had a lot of laughs heckling each other.

The foosball table is a decent one. We’ve had it for a long time, and I suppose our son is just getting even for all the years when he could never win. I played a lot of foosball in my time, and I was not about to let him win if I could help it. Now, the shoe, as they say, is on the other foot.

The game is in the basement where there is a lot going on with food. The converted fridge that holds our aging charcuterie is down there, along with all the large equipment that won’t fit in the kitchen. I installed a few of our old kitchen cabinets down there. There are always several food projects going on.

One particular project is a seven gallon bucket holding fermented vegetables. I’d been interested in fermenting whole heads of cabbage to make stuffed cabbage rolls. I started the first one in 2020, coring whole heads of cabbage and then placing them in a brine with apples, onions, garlic, carrots, hot peppers, wild mushrooms and spices. I’ve made many batches of sauerkraut, so this fermenting bucket was not a big stretch.

This version used brine with all of the vegetables. I put a dinner plate on top to hold everything under the brine for fermentation.

The bucket saw previous use as a beer fermenter. I used a brewing fermentation lock to allow the fermentation gases to bubble out. It was quite aromatic! Our foosball opponent had a lot of complaints, and it distracted him to the point where it took him off his game. For weeks, he exclaimed how the bucket was disgusting, smelling of garbage, and how I should throw it out. I’ll admit it was pungent at times. He called it “the Garbage Bucket”.

The time came to open the bucket and make the cabbage rolls. On opening the bucket, it was clear that there was magic in that bucket. I minced some of the fermented apples, garlic, onions, mushrooms, and carrots. I mixed with ground pork, rice, an egg, and a few other things. I rolled ample spoonfuls of the mixture into leaves carefully separated from the heads of fermented cabbage. I stacked the rolls in a pot with more of the fermented vegetables and chunks of my homemade bacon, poured some of my home-canned tomatoes and some good stock over top, and let it simmer on the stove for hours to let the rice cook and the flavors to meld. It was delicious.

It was so good, I dreamed of the next version of the Garbage Bucket. This time I decided to try packing the heads of cabbage and the whole vegetables with shredded kraut instead of brine. This was a great idea.

If you make a lot of kraut, you need one of these slicers. It makes the job fast and easy.

I bought a 50 pound case of cabbage. I cleaned the heads, removing the large outer leaves, cut out the core and rinsed with a lot of water. Next, I stacked heads in the empty bucket to see how many would fit. With the heads of cabbage in the bucket, I took the opportunity to weigh them. The heads of cabbage weighed 6600 grams. I have found the sweet spot for kraut salinity is about 1.5%, so I weighed out 99g sea salt. I mixed the salt with some caraway, coriander, allspice, black pepper, mustard seed, and juniper berries. I packed this salt in the holes in the cabbage where the cores had been removed. I set the heads of cabbage aside.

Next, I gathered and cleaned apples, onions, garlic, hot peppers, carrots, parsnips, turnips, and wild mushrooms (I used large pieces of chicken of the woods (Laetiporus cincinnatus)). I cleaned more heads of cabbage to be shredded into kraut.

Mixing the weighed vegetables and kraut with salt. The apples from our trees aren’t pretty, but they taste good!

I placed a large food lug on my kitchen scale and zeroed the scale. I piled in a load of shredded cabbage and then studded it with the whole vegetables and the same mix of spices used for the whole cabbages. Note the weight and add the salt. Mix thoroughly, and let it rest a few minutes to soften the cabbage and let the brine form. Once the cabbage begins to soften, I started packing the bucket. A whole head of cabbage with salt packed in the core and the whole pieces of veg and the shredded kraut packed tightly around the head(s) of cabbage.

Packing the bucket.

I repeated this process until the bucket was nearly full. You have to leave some head space for the fermentation. The first tub of veg was 5180g, and used 78g salt. Second was 4080g veg and 60g salt. Third to fill the bucket was 2700g veg and 41g salt. Make sure everything is tightly packed and that brine covers everything. While I keep the bucket sealed, not allowing air to get in, it’s important to not give mold or other undesirable stuff a chance to grow. If there’s no brine covering the veg, you can make some brine with water and 1.5% salt to pour in the bucket to cover the veg. Seal the bucket and add a fermentation lock.

Filled bucket. I added a little 1.5% brine to top it off.

You can leave this bucket in the kitchen, but be aware that the fermentation does produce quite a bit of hydrogen sulfide. The basement seems like a good place for it. Don’t put it where it could freeze. The fermentation bacteria generally like room temperature. If you put it in a cooler place, it will just take a bit longer. Let time do its thing. The fermentation takes at least four months until the contents are ready to use.

Okay, so how about those cabbage rolls? I have had a lot of variations of cabbage rolls. I think every European country east or south of Germany has its own version. It appears that the dish originated in Turkey, and spread north. I tested a variation using a more tomato-y sauce, but while it was very good, the acidity of the fermented stuff plus the tomatoes made me shift to a more savory approach. I found this is more common in the Balkan states, Croatia and Bosnia in particular. In this area, the dish is known as Sarma, a variation on the Turkish word for “wrapped”.

Test batch using more tomatoes in the sauce

As a bonus, this version has savory bites of meat included with the cabbage rolls. I have homemade bacon on hand, of course. I bought some smoked kielbasa at a Polish butcher shop, and I roasted some spare ribs to use as well. The spare ribs left some nice fond in the roasting pan which I used for stock to go in the pot.

Version using stock and a smaller amount of passata vs cooked whole tomatoes
(stock and passata not yet added here, but you get the idea!)

For the Cabbage Rolls

1-2 heads of fermented cabbage
2lbs ground pork
1c long grain rice (uncooked)
1c minced fermented onion, garlic, mushrooms
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
1 egg
1T Maggi (sub Worcestershire if you don’t have Maggi)
1T smoked paprika (vary heat level to your preference)
1T paprika

To assemble the Pot

2lbs spare rib riblets
1lb smoked kielbasa, sliced in bites
1/2lb smoked bacon cut in bite size chunks
1 pint tomato sauce (I used home-canned passata)
bay leaves
2 quarts stock (I used one quart of homemade chicken stock and one quart de-glazed from the pan in which I roasted the spare ribs) heat to a simmer
6 cups of the kraut and diced apples, onions, carrots, turnips, parsnips, mushrooms and garlic from the bucket

Start by roasting the riblets in the oven. I gave them a good sprinkling of salt and pepper and then roasted until they were brown, but not falling apart. De-glaze the pan with water on the stove top to get a quart of rich pork stock.

Separate the heads of cabbage into individual leaves.

Mix the remaining cabbage roll ingredients in a bowl until the mixture is sticky.

In a large Dutch oven, place the 6 cups of kraut and fermented vegetables. This is the base. Roll 2-3 tablespoons of the filling in cabbage leaves. Place the rolls loosely in layers on top of the kraut. Put bites of the meats between the rolls. Remember the rice will expand, so leave room.

When you get to the top layer, pour the passata over the rolls and then pour in the warmed stock. Put a few bay leaves on top, and then top with cabbage leaves. Bring the pot to a low boil, and then reduce to a simmer and cover for 2 hours.

I like to serve this with crisp slices of fried potatoes and a beer.

This way of making sarma is actually a two-fer. The ample kraut, vegetables, and juices at the bottom of the pot made a great batch of sauerkraut soup simply by adding more stock, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, and more sliced kielbasa. Some of my home-baked sourdough rye on the side, too.

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