Stuffed sauerkraut leaves with millet and cornmeal simmered in bors
‘Păsat’ or ‘crupe’ is a stone ground cornmeal milled very coarsely, almost like crushed grains rather than ground. There is not much processing going into it anyway, so all the nutrients and vitamins are kept intact. When maize was taken to the mill in my grandmother’s village, she used to ask for pasat and cornmeal flour, two different textures and hence two different products.
When you cook with pasat, you first have to soak it in water overnight, just like you would do with pulses, to soften it. After cooking, it looks pretty much like rice, it retains a bite and it is the perfect flavour carrier, especially if you add a bit of smoked pork belly in the stuffing.
Romania is a country that has been growing maize successfully and extensibly for hundreds of years, since the Ottoman empire introduced it to Eastern Europe. They had established trade routes with Venetian merchants and introduced many of the New World’s foodstuffs to the countries they ruled.
Rice was also grown in Romania in a small area in the south west of the country, that was started by Italians in 17th century at the invitation of the Habsburg rulers. Rice found a friendly culinary environment in Romania, especially through the Ottoman influences and dishes, where it was very popular. This didn’t make Romania a rice growing country, and it wasn’t predominant in dishes. In the 20th century, rice became very popular through imports and very cheap for people to buy, hence it replaced more traditional grains rapidly. I also hold the communist regime responsible for this, through collectivising private land and imposing mono culture crops.
As for ancient crops, it is likely that alongside wheat, people in this part of Europe were also cultivating millet and pearl barley. Rye too, but Romania is just a bit to the south of the ‘rye countries’ and it’s not predominant, although we too make rye bread with caraway seeds.
How maize and cornmeal are so engrained into Romanian cuisine is obvious in the multitude of dishes based on it. The ancient way of making porridge with millet and other grains, now calls for cornmeal. We have a sweet polenta with milk and jam for breakfast or savoury polenta with cheese and fried eggs. We make dishes by stuffing or layering polenta, or allowing it to cool and slicing it as bread. We fry it, simmer it and bake it. There is no surprise to actually see it in a filling too, as part of sarmale.
Drawing on these ingredients, the closest combination that I could find to replace pasat, unobtainable in the UK, was to combine millet with cornmeal. And it worked!
There is one more element to this dish that I’d like to tell you about. Traditionally, sarmale are stuffed with mince pork and baked in tomato sauce. This recipe doesn’t involve tomato sauce, but the brine from the sauerkraut is diluted with water in a ratio 1:1 and added to the pot, to simmer the cabbage rolls slowly. If there is not enough brine to do this, people use bors – which is the fermented juice of wheat bran and cornmeal. This juice is used as the sour element in broths and stews, but also to drink as medicine on an empty stomach or to make bread. I used bors, since I always have a jar in the making but I am also giving you a more accessible alternative: stock.
Without further ado, here is the recipe for millet stuffed sarmale:
Serves 8 people
1 medium size whole sauerkraut or 1 shop bought packet of sauerkraut leaves from a Romanian or Polish deli
1 large onion, diced
75g fine cornmeal
Salt and pepper
400ml Sauerkraut brine diluted with water or borș or vegetable stock
100g sour cream mixed with 1 egg.
Start by separating the sauerkraut leaves and set aside on a plate.
In a large frying pan, heat a layer of oil and fry the onions on medium heat for 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and cook them until soft. Add the millet and fry for a further 2–3 minutes. Pour over the water and cook until it is absorbed, then mix in the cornmeal, and set aside, allowing the mixture to cool.
To roll the sarmale, take one sauerkraut leaf, trim or cut it in half if it’s too large and remove the tough stalk in the middle. Take a spoonful of the filling and place it at the edge of the leaf. Roll tightly, tucking in the edges as you go along. Repeat with the remaining leaves.
To assemble, line the bottom of a deep baking tray or tin with a layer of the shredded trimmings. Cover with a layer of stuffed rolls, then add a thin layer of shredded trimmings, and another layer of rolls. Pour over the brine, bors or stock, cover with foil and bake in the oven at 170C for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and spread the sour cream mixture on top, then bake for another 20 minutes. Serve hot with polenta or bread.
The video below was recorded in collaboration with ARCS in Seattle where I was invited to talk about Romanian pickles and borș. You can also see how I prepare a borș, so you can start your own at home.