When thinking of sauerkraut in Romania, we think of the delicious stuffed cabbage rolls, our traditional Christmas dish. There is no Christmas dinner without it! To be more accurate, the stuffed cabbage rolls have a Turkish origin. Most of the European people who came in contact with the Turkish, while conquered- during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire- assimilated many of the Turkish dishes, such as the stuffed cabbage rolls.
In Turkish, 'sarma' means a roll-like cover. In Romania, we use the same word for naming a cabbage roll. For more cabbage rolls the word is 'sarmale'. It has become our traditional dish on very special occasions, especially on Christmas, but also for weddings or anniversaries. It is a delicious dish, yet it takes a few hours for preparation and cooking, unlike any other dish one can cook after coming home from work. For a wedding dinner, especially in the countryside, a few women gather to help folding the few hundred stuffed cabbage rolls (sarmale) which are cooked for the guests.
The best stuffed cabbage rolls are made with sauerkraut leaves and that's why we prefer pickling whole cabbage heads, which have to be sour before Christmas. Pickling full cabbage heads it's easier and more convenient for us, because it can always be shredded later, for a coleslaw or for a sauerkraut casserole, as a side dish. But, more important, a full cabbage head has enough leaves for making about thirty 'sarmale' or more.
If I make sauerkraut with shredded cabbage, it takes only a week to ferment, especially in a small jar. The bigger the jar, the longer the fermenting period. My grandmother used to make shredded sauerkraut in huge 20-pound jars, for use in coleslaw or sauerkraut casserole. She would also lay whole cabbage leaves in between, to use for "sarmale". I remember one fall, when my grandma came over to spend a few days with me and my husband. We had just bought cabbage for making sauerkraut. Like most of the people in Romania, I've always made sauerkraut with full cabbage heads, which I put in a 10-gallon (40 liter) barrel, cover with brine and leave it for fermenting for two months. The number of the cabbages is almost always the same, about 35 cabbage heads. These have always been just enough for our family until spring. My grandma, without asking anyone, took a few cabbages and started to shred them. Then she put the shredded cabbage in the 20 pound jar, as she always did. My husband, who didn't know about her habits, got confused and, somehow, offended. He asked grandma why was she shredding the cabbage. Grandma answered 'Because I want so!' and this put an end to their conversation. My husband told me about their short dialogue and said that grandma surprised him with her answer, so he had nothing more to say, but letting her do whatever she wanted to do. That's how my grandma was!
The specific date for starting the sauerkraut is October 26, the day when we celebrate St. Dumitru. Our ancestors used the saints' dates for marking specific agricultural works in the calendar. They figured out that the ground began to cool off from that date, meaning the cool weather was coming, so the cabbage should be picked up from the garden for starting the sauerkraut. Cabbage resists to first frost without being damaged, due to its many leaves. In our country, they say it's even best to harvest the cabbage after the first frost, because the frost softens the cabbage heads. This way, more cabbage heads can be crowded into the barrel. Once set into the barrel at this date, the cabbage heads start fermenting due to the perfect temperatures which don't go down to freezing until late November - just in time to preserve the sauerkraut thus obtained. This date regards only the sauerkraut made with full cabbage heads, not the shredded cabbage, which gets sour faster.
I like eating raw cabbage too; that's why the coleslaw is present among my dishes, both during the summer cabbage season (spring-sown) and in the fall cabbage season (autumn-sown). Once I had the opportunity of growing vegetables in my own garden, cabbage had to be one of them. But the main reason for which I'm growing cabbage is for making sauerkraut for the winter. I'm always planting "fall cabbage" meaning I'm harvesting it in the fall. The "summer cabbage" (or "early cabbage") is harvested in late spring-early summer. The early cabbage is a particular cabbage variety, with a 90-100 days growing period, not resistant to cracking. It has to be sown indoors, in late January or early February. Starting in spring--when the danger of frost is past--the seedlings are planted in the garden, so the cabbage should be ready for harvesting in June.
Cabbage is a cold season vegetable, similar to lettuce, radishes, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower. The heads are growing during the cloudy days, in spring, or in the fall. That's why early cabbage has a shorter growing period, so it can be harvested before the heat starts. Otherwise, it would stop producing leaves and it would start blooming. On the other hand, the fall cabbage has a longer growing period, during which it grows and it forms the big outside leaves. Starting September, the nights become colder and the cabbage heads start growing. The fall cabbage I prefer is a Romanian cabbage variety called 'De Buzau' after the town where this hybrid was first produced -Buzau- in their local Vegetable Research Institute. Near Buzau, people cultivate cabbage on very large fields. I don't have a large garden, but I sowed the seeds in a few rows, directly in the garden, in April. In June, the seedlings are usually big enough for thinning. They say the seedlings have to planted on their final beds not later than St. Elijah's (Ilie) day (on July 20) because the autumn-sown cabbage has a 200 days growing period.
The first year I grew cabbage was the best, beginner's luck, they say! I had plenty of seedlings, that's why about half of my garden was full with cabbage. I had two rows of seedlings. After thinning, I kept the stronger ones and threw away those too fragile. For planting the cabbage seedlings, I first used the green peas bed, after it stopped producing and began to dry out. Later, in July, after digging out the onions, I made another thinning and replanted the cabbage on their final beds. The hardest part was to dig out the weeds, almost weekly. Then I had to water the cabbage every day, thoroughly. But when the
heads started to form, I was so excited! I had about 40 medium to small cabbage heads, which were enough for my family's needs and for making the sauerkraut for the winter. It wasn't easy to keep them healthy. I had to fight snails and slugs, which I actually picked up with my hand, because nothing seemed to get them. I tried covering the soil with broken egg shells, which didn't work at all. Then I tried what had been working for the strawberries: beer in small plastic cups, buried between the cabbage rows. That worked and that's how I managed to have all those healthy cabbages. A few sprays with bug insecticide did wonders, because, at some point, some aphids and thrips were all over the cabbage heads .
The following year I wasn't so lucky anymore because of a few caterpillars. They appeared all over the cabbages when the heads were just starting to form. I had many cabbage heads - which my grandson noticed- but I had to throw those attacked by the caterpillars away.
Last year things weren't great either. Because of too much rain, weeds invaded my vegetable garden and I didn't have enough time to weed nor to dig. Only a few cabbage seedlings managed to grow through the weeds. After thinning them, I got only one row with a few seedlings, which grew until they formed the first big leaves. Soon after that, some creature started to cut every single leaf my cabbage seedlings had, carrying them outside the vegetable garden, to the field. I found huge slugs, which ate part of a pumpkin and could have also eaten the cabbage leaves, but to carry a leaf away - I don't think so! That must have been another creature.
This year I finally managed to get three healthy cabbage heads - it's okay, you can laugh now, but I'm proud of myself! I don't want to spray with weedkiller spray in my vegetable garden and this is starting to cost me too much work for weeding. I've lost precious seedlings, which were suffocated by weeds, in a very short time and, then, the snails finished the work. Out of two rows sown with cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli I got only five cabbage seedlings, two broccoli and one cauliflower. That didn't impeach me from making sauerkraut, because there's plenty of cabbage at the market and it isn't expensive - anyone can buy. It's just my pride to feed my family with my own vegetables, of which I know for sure that are healthy.
Consequently, I bought 35 cabbage heads, as usual. Putting all cabbages in the barrel is easy, but moving the barrel around with the cabbages inside is not that easy, that's why it has to be on its place, to where I am carrying the cabbages. When I was living in an apartment in Bucharest, the barrel stayed on the balcony. Ever since we moved out to our new home, the barrel stays inside a small basement, where I carry the cabbage heads, cleaned and ready for pickling. I first sterilize the barrel by pouring boiling water inside, although the fermentation destroys any bad bacteria in the barrel. I removed the wilted leaves and made a cross-cut at the bottom of each cabbage head, to allow salty water to get easier inside. Another method I've used before is to remove the core by drilling with a knife, which is too messy, so I gave up on it.
I carried all the cabbage heads into the basement, together with all other ingredients. I arranged the heads inside the barrel, until it was full. Some heads had to be cut in half or quarters, to fill the holes between the heads. Two or even three heads always remain outside at first, but I can always add them later, in a few days, when the cabbage starts softening. Once I set the cabbage inside, I added a bunch of dry mature dill with seeds, which I had dried myself from my garden. The dill seeds are giving a specific taste to sauerkraut. I also added a few cleaned and peeled horseradish roots, to prevent sauerkraut from getting mushy and to give it a better taste. I also added a handful of corn seeds, which will give a nice yellow color to the cabbage heads and to the brine.
I had already bought kosher salt which is best for pickling, counting 1 tablespoon salt for 1 quart (1 liter) of water. From my experience, I need 10 gallons (40 liters) of water and 3 pounds (1.4 kg) kosher salt for my barrel and the 35 cabbage heads. I can make the brine by mixing salt with water, then pouring it in to the barrel. Water can be either hot, warm or cold, it doesn't matter, because it will ferment anyway. If I bring to boil water with salt, then pour it over the cabbage, it will ferment faster, but how could I climb in and out of the basement, with a hot brine in a pot? My mom used to do that when we were living in an apartment and had a smaller barrel. She kept it into the kitchen until the cabbage finished fermentation, and then she rolled it over to the balcony - which wasn't easy. That's why my husband and I decided to adopt another method, which we learned from my dear neighbor Mrs. Petre, which is to sprinkle the salt all over the cabbage heads, inside the barrel, then add cold water until it covers the heads.
For helping the salt dissolving into the water, there is a special action we're doing: getting the water out, with a small hose and pouring it back in, for several times, in the first two weeks. Another method is of blowing into the brine in the barrel through a pipe, also a few times a week, during the first two weeks. We're calling it "blowing into the cabbage".
The lactobacilli, growing on the cabbage leaves surface, start fermentation and the brine gets sour in about 2-3 weeks. After a few days, when the cabbage start softening, I'm adding the rest of the cabbage and push them all under the brine. It's important the heads stay under the brine, to keep them away from oxygen, which would allow bad bacteria to spread on the cabbage surface and damage it. Many are using a big river rock as weight, over two crossed wooden rods, which are keeping the heads from getting out. I tried that too, but salt was attacking the rock which didn't seem too hygienic to me. Instead, I'm using a large plate, which I lay upside down, over the heads, then put above it one gallon plastic bottle, filled with water.
My sauerkraut is almost ready now, but I'm sure it needs more time to settle, so I won't disturb it for another week or so. Starting in December, it's ready to be cooked. I can't wait to eat some cabbage rolls!