What do your Christmas dinners consist of? Does this important tradition centre around a baked ham, turkey or a prime rib roast? Perhaps your big feast day is on Christmas Eve, highlighted with a beautiful fish dinner. Or maybe you look forward to that Christmas day brunch of pancakes and eggs, bacon and quiches. However you eat to celebrate Christmas, it’s those traditions we incorporate year after year that differentiates this meal from all others. For me, it just wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have three special dishes.
First, Christmas is not Christmas without Turkey. For our family, turkey is a celebratory bird, one that is only enjoyed on special occasions. You won’t find turkey on our table on any given Sunday. Nope, this is one exclusive dish held in high regard in our family. What ranks it high in my books is not the bird itself, it’s what it is served with – mlinci! More on mlinci (mleen-see) later, but a sneak peak for those of you who are wondering what this may be, it’s a cross between North American stuffing and Italian pasta, soaked in turkey drippings. Have I got you interested yet? However you serve your turkey, I think many people would agree that a juicy roast turkey, slathered in gravy - not cranberry sauce – is what makes Christmas dinner, Christmas dinner.
Number two on my Christmas dinner list is roasted pork on a spit. Now you may be thinking how do you roast a pig on a spit in the dead of winter. Well my friends, you haven’t met a Croatian yet have you? Roast pork is a Croatian staple, especially when you’re celebrating something; there’s nothing more celebratory than turning a pig. All of our major milestones are marked by roasted pork. Baptizing your first child, roast a pig. Daughter’s first communion – roast a pig! Confirmations, weddings, Easter, the in-laws come to town, yup you guessed it – roast a pig! A side note here: the last point, welcoming the in-laws is a big deal! Just think of My Big Fat Wedding when Ian and his parents meet the Portokalos’ for the first time, who are roasting lamb on their front lawn.
Since Croatians roast pigs all the time, including during snow storms, it became an absolute necessity to devise a contraption that can roast a pig during our cold Canadian winters. Most of these devices are enclosed spits that keep the heat in. Some are state of the art, staineless steel structures of ingenuity, others are gutted out fridges. Croatians are resourceful people and nothing comes between us and our roasted pork!
Finally, the last item on our menu that transforms dinner to Christmas dinner is cabbage rolls. If the roast pig is the show stopper of Christmas dinner, that draws all the men out in the garage, drinking beer, comparing pig roasting notes and talking ”man-talk”, then cabbage rolls is the technical component of the meal that gets the women comparing their recipes and sharing family cabbage roll secrets. Women like to talk about whether they use the stove top method, or the oven method. If they grind up some smoke meat and mix it in with the pork, and most importantly, how nothing beats homemade sauerkraut. They commend the host and cook on how small and dainty the cabbage rolls are, a sure sign of experience, and how the seasoning is just right. Good food is truly an artform and nowehere else is the appreciation of it so evident than around the Christmas dinner table.
Now, if you’re use to the cabbage rolls from the hot bar of your local grocery store hot bar, these are not them. These cabbage rolls are the grocery store’s much cooler, big brother. This is what every other cabbage roll wishes to be, but few ever reach; a more sophisticated, bolder and flavour packed bundle of meat. As a result, many who are used to North American cabbage rolls may find the traditional versions very different from what they are used to; but trust me it’s a good different! Just think of warm, smoky flavours from the addition of smoked meat, coupled by the tangy sauerkraut that cuts through the richness of the protein, and the delicately flavoured filling that is more meat than rice. Once you’ve tried a traditional cabbage roll, you’ll never go back to the fake stuff. It’s no wonder that this dish makes the cut for every Croatian’s Christmas dinner menu.
Cabbage Rolls (Sarma)
This recipe makes a lot of cabbage rolls, enough to use all the leaves on a head of cabbage. If this is too much for one sitting, have no fear, because they freeze well. In fact, they’re a great addition to your freezer as a go to option for future meals.
Finding good sauerkraut can be a challenge even in the most ethnically diverse of cities, if you don’t have someone in the family who makes it. Hit your local Eastern European delis and ask around if you don’t see it right away (that’s what I had to do as I forgot to ask my mom to bring me some last time she visited). If your deli doesn’t carry it, they may know someone who does. You’re looking for the entire head, still intact. Smaller heads are better, as the leaves are tender and more enjoyable to eat. My grandmother, who still works as a prep cook at restaurant, makes cabbage rolls as a daily special a few times of year. She boils cabbage in vinegar and water until tender-crisp. This is a good alternative if you can’t find the real stuff – the customers rave about it!
When preparing the sauerkraut, you want to rinse it, or better yet, soak it in cold water first, especially if you’re using store-bought. I find that store-bought is a bit more sour than I am used to. By soaking it, you can move some of the harshness and extra salt that is used in the preserving process.
Smoke meat is optional, especially in the filling. Some people only add a few smoked ribs or sausages to the roaster as it’s cooking, others grind up a bit to mix into the meat. This is up to you. If you’re new to traditional cabbage rolls, with the addition of smoked meat, then start slow by just adding a few pieces to the pot during the braising process. I do suggest though you try it in the filling as well; the flavour is incomparable.
Finally, when serving it’s always nice to top the bowls with some sliced sausages. These traditionally are smoked as well. We normally use our homemade sausages (I just forgot to boil some for this shoot – sorry), but using store-bought cured sausages like Krajnske are excellent as well.
Makes around 30 to 40 cabbage rolls
2 medium onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons paprika
3 pounds lean ground pork
4 ounces smoked meat (slab bacon), ground – optional
1 1/4 cups arborio rice
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons Vegeta
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 head of sauerkraut (leaves intact)
1 1/2 cups canned tomato, chopped in juice
1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water (or enough liquid to come three-quarters of the way up)
2 cups shredded sauerkraut
Smoked ribs and/or slab bacon (if using slab bacon, slice in lardons) – optional
2 links cooked, smoked sausages, sliced
To prepare the leaves, tear the leaves gently from the core, ensuring that the whole leaf is intact. Soak the leaves in a bowl of cold water for 20 to 30 minutes, drain and rinse. Trim the vein that runs down the length of the leaf by running your knife down either side of the vein. Where you have cut the vein out, continue cutting to make two, smaller leaves. Continue with the rest of the leaves.
In a small, non stick frying pan, heat the oil and sweat the onions until translucent. Add the garlic, cook for 30 seconds and then add the paprika. Cook for another minute and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, add the ground pork, ground smoked meat (if using), rice, egg, Vegeta, salt and pepper. Once the onion mixture has cooled slightly, add it to the mixing bowl. Using your hands, gently combine all of the ingredients. Be careful not to overwork the mixture, as it will make the filling tough.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees farenheit. In a roaster with a lid (if you don’t have one of these you can cover a roasting pan with foil) layer half of the shredded sauerkraut, in the bottom of the roaster. To assemble the cabbage rolls, grab a small handful of the meat filling and place it at the bottom of the cabbage leaf. Roll up the filling in the leaf and tuck in the edges by pushing the ends into the filling. You may have to tuck in as you roll up if you have tougher leaves, as these leaves will be thicker and not as easy to push into the centre. In the end, you want the do not want to see the filling from the sides; the cabbage should completely enclose the filling from all sides.
Place the completed cabbage rolls over the shredded sauerkraut, fitting them in as snugly as possible. Add the chopped tomato and juice in a thin layer over the cabbage rolls and then the smoked meat (if using) and finally, the rest of the shredded cabbage. Pour in the chicken stock and water, ensuring that it reaches three-quarters of the way up. Cover the roaster with a lid or aluminium foil and bake in the oven for 2 to 2 and 1/2 hours. Serve topped with sliced smoked sausages and mashed potatoes.
Note: When making this recipe for this post, I only made one layer. If you are making more layers, you will need and extra cup of tomato divided between the two layers, and more stock or water.