Even if you’re not a fan of cabbage, these stuffed cabbage rolls just might make you one! It’s turned many cabbage loathers into cabbage lovers!
One of my fondest recollections from childhood is the Saturday visits from my maternal grandparents. They would arrive bearing bags loaded with gifts and food, eyes twinkling as we grabbed the bags from their hands and started rifling through them, staking claim on anything we could get our hands on.
The ‘usuals’, as far as food went, were: homemade stuffed green peppers (my mother’s favorite), these fabulous, fluffy, yeasty rolls from a bakery near them, assorted cold-cuts, homemade noodle kugel, and homemade chocolate chip cookies. But, there was one dish that trumped all of the above for me, one that my grandmother must have fed me from birth because I loved it more than anything at an age when all things leafy or green was gross.
Stuffed cabbage rolls (aka Holishkes, Golumpki (Golabki, Golubsti) Sarma, or Prakas).
We always served the stuffed cabbage with mashed potatoes. No explanation why, it was just tradition. It was the perfect sauce soaking vessel. I love them with egg noodles too.
I still remember digging deep into each bag, feeling for the familiar, large plastic Chinese soup container; the tender green cabbage rolls flush against the sides, crammed within a bright orangey red, sweet and sour tomato sauce with raisins and more bits of cabbage. The moment I hit it, I would yank it out with impassioned glee, and the understanding that it was MINE, MINE, ALL MINE.
I used the whole cabbage, even the darker outer leaves because it was grown in a friend’s garden and I didn’t want to waste a bit of it! But, it’s the inner lighter leaves (below) that are sweeter, tender, and just well, better, when cooked.
When my grandmother passed, her stuffed cabbage rolls recipe went with her. I never asked for it because I thought she would live forever. You have these moments in youth where everyone seems immortal, and death is just an eventual speck on the horizon that you don’t acknowledge. No one was gonna die on you, no matter what older people said.
I had attempted ‘my version’ of her stuffed cabbage rolls only once before, but was completely unsuccessful. It turned out okay, but it just wasn’t HERS, and I think you all know what I mean by that. It was missing that something something, but I couldn’t quite place what that something something was. I finally decided that I wasn’t going to even attempt it for a while and just occasionally bask in the memory of her magic whenever I encountered it elsewhere. A few Jewish delis came close, but no dice; her stuffed cabbage rolls were much, much better. There was always something missing.
When this month’s Daring Cooks challenge was announced, the first thing I saw was stuffed grape leaves. I’ve never been a huge fan of them, although I try to like them because they’re such a huge presence in some of best Greek salads I’ve ever had. I always end up taking one bite, chewing it with a sour face, then eventually spitting it out into a napkin like a 5-year-old. I suppose we were just not meant to be, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying (UPDATE: 2018, I’ve finally begun to like them. A friend made some, and I couldn’t stop eating them! Hooray!). I have this thing about waste, and it seems such a waste to let those amazing little rolls hit the trash with tiny bits of Greek salad residue clinging to them. (Yes, I know dolmades are not only an occasional part of Greek salads, but it’s the only time I encounter them).
Our October 2010 hostess, Lori of Lori’s Lipsmacking Goodness, has challenged The Daring Cooks to stuff grape leaves. Lori chose a recipe from Aromas of Aleppo and a recipe from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.
Scrolling further down, I noticed there were a few people stuffing cabbage leaves. Alright, so it’s not exactly what the blog checking lines state, but this recipe is of Jewish origin (little factoid – Jewish stuffed cabbage rolls are usually sweet and sour), and Israel is in the Middle East. Yep, trying to crawl through loopholes here. Regardless, this was a sign; it was now time to take on my grandmother’s stuffed cabbage rolls again. It couldn’t have come at a better time since 1) the weather is getting cooler, and 2) I was really starting to miss and crave it immensely.
No fancy pants plating for a dish like this – just load up your plate with comforting goodness. OK, so I piped the potatoes with a pastry bag; it was just a brief whim thing aka I’m a food blogger, and I take photos of almost everything I make.
So, here’s what I did. I took a traditional Jewish stuffed cabbage recipe from Joan Nathan, and another stuffed cabbage recipe from CHOW.com, then combined them and adjusted it according to what I remember my grandmother’s stuffed cabbage tasting like, which seemed to take forever! A little of this, a little of that, wait, no, subtract that and add more of this instead. It probably took me about two weeks and five pans of stuffed cabbage to get to what I felt was close to hers!
That being said, the only thing I did differently from my grandmother was oven simmering the stuffed cabbage in lieu of simmering it stove top in a dutch oven, a method Joan Nathan recommends in her recipe. Just the thought of having to keep running to the stove to stir so the cabbage rolls didn’t stick to the bottom and burn, like my grandmother did, wasn’t something I relished. In fact, I don’t think she ever left the stove when she was simmering her lovely cabbage rolls!
Update: Sue left a comment saying that if you want to cook this stove top, line the bottom of the pot with cabbage leaves and it will prevent the rolls from scorching. Thank you, Sue!
Final verdict? Closest to her stuffed cabbage that I’m ever going to get. My mother was the true test, and she said they tasted exactly like hers. Stuffed cabbage success!
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls Recipe
The preparation time entirely depends on which method you use to soften your cabbage leaves. It can be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to 24 hours plus if you freeze it.
- 1 large head green cabbage, about 2 to 2¼ pounds
- 2 pounds ground beef
- 2 eggs (not necessary, you can leave them out, but they bind and make the meat fluffier)
- 1 medium onion, grated or minced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- ½ cup uncooked white rice (I like using long-grain) *
- 2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil (I use 1 tablespoon of each)
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped (medium dice)
- 2 15-ounce cans tomato sauce or one 32-ounce can whole tomatoes, pulsed in a food processor with juice until pureed.
- juice of one lemon or 2 tablespoons (or more to taste) apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons to ¾ cup light brown sugar (Depending on amount of sweetness you prefer. Start with 1 to 2 tablespoons and taste the sauce, adding if you like it sweeter. If you prefer it completely savory, add only 1 tablespoon brown sugar and the juice from half a lemon)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ½ cup golden raisins (optional)
- Chopped parsley, for garnish
- Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a rolling boil. When the water comes to a boil, fill a large bowl with ice water. Cut out as much of the core as you can from the bottom of the cabbage, then drop the whole, cored head into the boiling water for 3 to 4 minutes. Once the leaves separate and are pliable, immediately remove and drop the blanched leaves that separated (keep the pot of water boiling) in the ice water. Once cooled down, remove and pat the leaves dry. Repeat with any leaves still attached to the head and not pliable, until you've gotten all the leaves off the head, and they are all soft and pliable.
Alternatively, If you've got time on your hands, you can freeze the wrapped head of cabbage for two days then defrost. Cut out as much of the core as you can, then wrap tightly and freeze. When defrosted, the leaves will peel off easily and be soft enough to roll.
Here's some other ideas from readers, although I have yet to try them so I cannot confirm that they work. 1. Place the cabbage in the microwave for 6 minutes. The core will slip right out and the leaves will be perfect for rolling. 2. Cut out the core, fill the hole with water, then tie it up tightly in a microwave safe plastic bag. Microwave it for 6 minutes, then remove it from the microwave and let it steam in the bag for about a half hour.
- Set aside about 16 of the largest leaves (these will be your cabbage rolls. If you can only get 14 leaves, it's fine) and slice off any thick parts of the vein on each of them, or just cut out the thick vein since that part will be covered once the cabbage leaf is rolled. Chop some of the remaining cabbage leaves to make 1 cup of chopped cabbage, and reserve.
- Make the sauce (recipe below). Set aside to let cool. IMPORTANT: Taste the sauce as you add the brown sugar, anywhere from 2 tablespoons to ¾ cup as stated in the ingredient list above, starting with only 2 tablespoons so you sweeten it to YOUR preference. Some like it very sweet and sour, and some do not.
- In a large bowl, mix the ground beef with the eggs, grated onion, chopped garlic, salt, pepper, and rice. (If you use cooked rice, you can test the seasoning of the meat mixture to your liking by frying up or microwaving a piece of it and tasting, if desired). Divide the meat mixture into sixteen equal pieces, or 14 equal pieces, about 2 to 3 oz each, depending on whether you have 16 or 14 cabbage leaves. Using slightly moistened hands (or not, since it rarely sticks to my hands), form the pieces into thick cylinders. Place a cylinder of filling near the bottom of a cabbage leaf (if the vein in the leaf is really thick, shave it down with a knife before placing the beef on it, being careful not to cut a big hole through the leaf itself OR, cut the thick vein out completely in a narrow V. When you roll the cabbage, that V will be covered sufficiently, as mentioned above).
- Roll the meat filled cabbage leaf up, folding both sides over the filling, (like you see in the above photos) and finish rolling to enclose the filling, like an egg roll. Continue, filling and rolling all the cabbage leaves. Line the bottom of a 13 x 9 roasting pan or glass dish with a layer of sauce. Place cabbage rolls, seam side down, on top of sauce.
- Top cabbage rolls with remaining sauce then cover the whole pan with tin foil. Bake for 2 hours in a preheated 350 F oven.
- Over medium heat, melt the butter and/or oil in a heavy, non-reactive saucepan. Sauté the second onion until soft and golden. Add the garlic and saute for 2 more minutes, then add the reserved 1 cup chopped cabbage and sauté for about 30 seconds to 1 minute more.
- Add the tomato sauce, lemon juice, brown sugar, salt and pepper to taste, and stir to combine. Increase the heat until it comes to a boil, then lower it and simmer for 5 minutes. Add raisins now, if using. Set aside to cool while making the cabbage rolls.
** Sauce can be made 2 days ahead; just cover and chill. Also, if you like a lot of sauce, just double or add another half of the original recipe.
Be sure to check out the links in Daring Cooks blogroll for all kinds of stuffed leafy rolls, HERE. For the recipes for stuffed grape leaves provided by our sexy lips hostess, click HERE. Thanks for a great challenge, Lori!