it has all slowed down a bit in N1 kitchen. being busy at work doesn’t allow time for just daydreaming about food, mulling over what goes with what or what i have in the fridge that needs using up. there has been cooking, of course, but the kind of utilitarian, stripped-down version that gives me little pleasure. the kind of cooking that has led my mum (a great cook, especially when it comes to puddings – unfortunately) to say that thirty odd years of cooking for a family of four have knocked the fun out of cooking somewhat. she just doesn’t find day-to-day feeding of oneself particularly exciting any more and i could sympathise with that last week. i could also see the appeal of ready made meals – coming home from work and thinking about the latest twist on ratatouille is just not what you want to do, or have time for. masterchef final was on, for one thing. (and there are only two of us - i really don’t know how people with children actually have time to do anything at all.)

anyway, sarma...every yugo worth his salt would have eaten sarma hundreds of times, me included. it’s staple food – i bet there are thousands of pots of sarma slowly simmering on thousands of stoves all over the balkans right now. and this afternoon, once the kids are back from school and parents from work, families will be sitting down to tables covered with patterned lino, to warm plates of sarma (soup plates, this is stuff more suited to eating with a spoon), perhaps with a bit of creme fraiche on top, and always with lots of sliced bread.

there are lots of version of sarma, and probably lots of arguments about what is authentic and what’s just some new-fangled nonsense. big, hefty sarmas made with sauerkraut in the winter boiled with cured pork knuckles or bits of ham for extra flavour, dainty little sarmas made with fresh vine leaves in the summer, nestling in a pot like miniature green parcels, and common-or-garden sarmas made with ‘sweet’ cabbage as it is called at home, sauce thickened with tomato and a bit of flour, with a whiff of paprika.

they’re all good – though i have a personal preference for the vine leaves version: they taste pleasantly bitter, and of minerals somehow. conversely, i’ve never liked the middle eastern cinnamon/sultana twist that seems to be quite common in the uk – sugary sweet is one thing sarma should not be, if you ask me.

this recipe is from my grandmother's pata markovic cookery book - i thought that would be as authentic as you get, all things considering.

for 4 (sort of - it was for two in our case, plus one breakfast)

250g minced beef
250g minced pork
1 large cabbage
2 onions, finely chopped
1 large egg
a handful of finely chopped parsley
salt and pepper
olive oil
one tin of chopped tomatoes, mashed so it's puree-like
1tsp paprika
2 long green peppers (or just normal ones)

discard the tough outer leaves of the cabbage and try and take out as much of the core as possible without damaging the leaves. put the cabbage in a large pot and pour some boiling water over it. leave it on low heat for a while, until the leaves start to come away from the cabbage. separate the leaves and put them aside - cut out the spine if hard. you want the leaf to be soft and pliable, so you can fold it, but not to soft as to be falling apart so the timing is crucial.

now make the filling. fry the onions in some olive oil until soft and translucent, then add the meat and fry for ten or so minutes until cooked through. take off the heat and, when it's cooled down, add the egg, seasoning and the chopped parsley. set aside to go completely cold as it's much easier to make sarma that way (apparently).

take a leaf of cabbage (or two, overlapping, if small), put some meat in the middle and roll up like a cigar, tucking each end in. i messed this up quite spectacularly - i blame the cabbage but it was probably more to do with my skill. pata gives no instructions on how to do this - she just says 'now roll sarma in the normal way' - err, thanks. i resorted to toothpicks and force - it kind of worked.

take a large lidded pot, put any discarded small leaves and the cabbage core at the bottom, and then layer your sarmas on top. pour over the tomatoes - shake the pan a little so they are evenly distributed throughout the pan. sprinkle over the paprika, lay the two green peppers on top (whole) and leave to simmer on low heat 'until it's cooked'. that probably means an hour or so but do keep checking as you don't want it to burn. if it's too 'wet' at the end, take the lid off and boil rapidly to evaporate some of the sauce. you don't want it to be too dry - sarma should be juicy and there should be some bread mopping at the end.

(note: pata obviously doesn't use a tin of tomatoes. instead, she simmers a kilo of fresh, chopped tomatoes with some onions and a red pepper, and then pushes it through a sieve. one day, i might make it that way but in the meantime, j sainsbury will remain a good friend.)


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