Pork, veg and stuffing: Moldovan sarmale

Five notable foodie experiences of recent times, in order of appearance:

1. ‘Come Dine With Me.’ We have our own version of this reality TV experience happening on a regular basis with four friends, with each round having a different theme. The current theme is Our Countries of Origin and a few weeks ago, we were treated to a wonderful English meal at the home of two of our friends. It’s our turn this weekend and we are determined to try to reach the lofty standard set by their meal!

2. BBC Good Food Show. We were lucky enough to win tickets to this foodie extravaganza at Kensington Olympia and spent the day sampling delicacies and picking up as many freebies as possible. The highlight, however, was the fact that we got to meet Tom Kerridge! We’ve long been fans of his no-nonsense-yet-still-exquisite style of cooking, and a meal at his two-Michelin-starred pub The Hand & Flowers is on our bucket list, so it was a real fangirl/boy moment for us.

3. Fortnum & Mason Christmas hamper. We were very fortunate to win another competition, this time making us the recipients of a fabulous hamper from Fortnum & Mason, filled with lots of Christmassy goodies. It actually arrived on 25th November, so it really was like Christmas a month early! We haven’t eaten any of it yet, but we are very excited about it.

4. Finale of Masterchef Australia 2016. It’s always tricky to watch this show in England, as we’re a few months behind and avoiding spoilers is nearly impossible, but we managed it this year, which meant that the nail-biting finish between Elena and Matt really was nail-biting. A particular proud moment was the fact that both of the finalists hailed from the Sunshine Coast, where Miranda is from!

5. Moldovan sarmale. We struggled to find a Moldovan dish that was actually Moldovan, because just about every ‘traditional’ recipe we found seemed to be of Romanian origin. Eventually we came across a recipe for stuffed cabbage leaves on AllRecipes – a website we tend to avoid because it can be so generic and unregulated, but times were starting to get desperate. Stuffed cabbage leaves seem to be a staple of many Eastern European countries, but this recipe claimed to be Moldovan, and we haven’t actually made any stuffed cabbage leaves yet despite them being so prolific, so we thought it was about time.

Sarmale

Ingredients
625g long grain rice, rinsed
900g pork mince
450g carrots, finely diced
450g onions, finely chopped
175g parsnips, finely diced (the original recipe said parsley roots, but we’ve never heard of these, and apparently they’re like parsnips or turnips)
3 tbsp tomato puree
1/2 tsp dried dill (we didn’t have this so substituted fresh – didn’t measure the quantities unfortunately but kept tasting until it seemed balanced. Maybe about 1 tbsp?)
4 tbsp cooking oil
Salt
Pepper
1 medium head of cabbage, individual leaves carefully removed

Method
1. Place the rice in a large bowl and pour boiling water over it. Let it soak for 15 minutes, then drain.
2. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the carrots, parsnips, onions and tomato puree. Cook and stir until vegetables are tender. Transfer to the bowl with the rice.
3. Heat the rest of the oil in the same pan, add the pork and cook until browned. Transfer to the bowl with the rice and vegetables, season with dill and black pepper and stir until everything is well-blended. Set aside to cool slightly.
4. Place the cabbage leaves in a large saucepan with about 5cm of water. Bring to the boil and cook for 5-10 minutes, until tender and flexible.
5. Remove the cabbage leaves from the pan, but leave enough in the bottom to cover. On each of the remaining leaves, place about 2 tbsp of the pork mixture in the centre and wrap the leaf around the cover. (This is easier said than done as not all of them wanted to wrap up… but we did our best! No cabbage leaf stuffing hacks here, though, we’re afraid.) Place the stuffed leaves into the pan.
6. When all of the stuffed leaves are in the pan, place a few more boiled leaves over the top. Pour boiling water into the pot to cover the leaves and place over medium-high heat. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the rice is tender.

Serves 5

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Our main issue with this recipe was the totally baffling quantities of ingredients. The recipe said it served 5, so we halved it, and we do agree that we ended up with about 2.5 serves of stuffed cabbage leaves. However, we used slightly more cabbage than was specified, but were still left with an enormous amount of the filling once we had stuffed the leaves. It wasn’t wasted, because Ash had a brainwave of making stuffed peppers with it a couple of days later (even then, we didn’t use all of it!), but it did seem unnecessary.

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Hooray for improvising!

As for the dish itself, we liked it, but didn’t love it. We were concerned that a plate of stuffed leaves for dinner would be a bit samey, but it wasn’t actually too bad, because it was essentially meat, rice and three veg, which is a pretty standard meal – just presented in a different way. Admittedly, we did add some hot sauce, but this wasn’t strictly necessary. The addition of dill also gave it a unique twist and served as a reminder that we really don’t cook with dill enough! Otherwise, though, it was a little bland, and many of the stuffed leaves fell apart during the cooking – not a disaster for us sitting in front of a film on a Saturday night, but we’re not inclined to make them again for a dinner party! So all in all, a worthy experiment, and we feel gratified to have finally trodden the stuffed cabbage leaf path, but we probably won’t venture there again.

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