When my brother Alan wrote about the one dish he’d want to have an endless supply of should he be marooned on a desert island, I posed the same question to myself. And the answer for me is also one of those family recipes, a dish that wraps you up in a blanket of warmth and rocks you to sleep. My desert island dish is stuffed cabbage.
This is another peasant style dish of a spiced meat filling wrapped in boiled cabbage leaves, then simmered in a sauce. Also called cabbage rolls, there must be a million variations to this ancient European recipe. On the Russian side of the region, the dish usually has a creamy style sauce. The German version has caraway seeds in the filling. Closer to Austria and northern Italy, the dish has a tomato based sauce. And in southern Romania, closer to Turkey, the recipe includes a sweet element, such as sugar in the sauce and raisins in the stuffing. Romania is the part of the world my people came from, so the recipe I learned from my mother has that sweet/savory combination.
There is something profoundly soothing about cooked cabbage. It becomes soft and delicate and despite the offensive smell when it’s boiling, it takes on a beautiful roundness of flavor when cooked. It also soaks up other tastes very well, so whatever gets cooked with cabbage is unmistakable in the final dish. It’s just a fabulous vehicle for flavor.
Preheat the oven to 350
For the cabbage rolls
1 large head of cabbage
3 pounds of ground beef (you can use a beef, pork or veal combo)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup of raw long grained rice
1/2 cup of bread crumbs
1/2 cup of golden raisins
1 large onion
1 tbsp paprika
Zest from one lemon
spices to taste…whatever you think will work well
For the sauce
1 large can of tomato puree
1/4 cup of brown sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
This recipe requires some prep that will make everything much easier to assemble when the time comes. First, get a big cabbage with lots of dark green leaves on the outside that won’t fall apart during rolling and cooking. You’re going to use the whole cabbage leaves to roll up the filling, as if you’re making a meat cigar. But they need to be pliable, so you need to boil the whole head of cabbage so the leaves come off intact. The best way to do this is to cut out as much of the core as you can. I use a small paring knife to core the cabbage, much like you would core a tomato. Once I’ve gotten the initial plug out, I work the small knife around inside the cabbage to remove as much of the core as possible. I gently loosen the cabbage by working my thumbs inside the empty core. But be careful, you don’t want to break the cabbage up. Delicacy is important.
Put your cabbage in a big pot of water and bring it to a boil. While your cabbage is coming to the boil, you can prepare the filling and the sauce. I find this dish works best when cooked in a large casserole dish with a lid. In the bottom of your casserole dish, blend the tomato puree, brown sugar and lemon juice and set it aside.
Then make the filling, start by soaking your raisins in a cup of boiling water. While the raisins are hydrating, dice the onion and begin caramelizing it in a skillet over medium low heat. The more caramelized the onions are, the better flavor your stuffed cabbage will have. So let them brown slowly to develop the sugars. Add your spices to the onions toward the end of their cooking. Take the raisins out of the water, but reserve that water for later. I like to chop my raisins up so they integrate well into the stuffing, but my mother always left then whole. Now it’s time to add everything to the meat and mix it all together with God’s own mixing tools….your hands. You really cannot get it blended properly unless you use your hands. Get in there, baby, and squish that filling around between your fingers and make sure all the onions and raisins and rice and spices are really well mixed in. The filling should be kind of moist and sticky as the rice needs liquid to cook properly. If your filling is dry and isn’t sticking to your fingers, add some of the raisin water.
Okay, now you have your sauce ready to go. You have your filling ready to go. Time to check on the cabbage. Using a pair of tongs, fish around in the boiling water and start working the cabbage leaves apart from the head. Have a big bowl of cool water standing by and as the leaves separate, pull them out gently and drop them in the bowl of cool water. Once you have extracted 8 or 10 cabbage leaves, you can start rolling until the inner leaves have boiled a little more.
Lay your cabbage leaf out and cut the tough core out of the middle, leaving a heart shaped leaf of cabbage for rolling. Place a handful of filling in the round end of the leaf and spread it out slightly like a small log. Fold the sides of the leaf over the meat and roll that puppy up like a cigar. Place the roll seam side down in the casserole dish. Repeat until you have used all your filling. Lay some of the cabbage leaves over the top of the casserole, put the cover on it and pop it into the oven. Bake it for about 45 minutes.
This stuff is best served with a heaping mountain of fluffy mashed potatoes, lovingly dimpled with a well for the sauce. Fantastic!