Last week’s CSA box included a gorgeous Savoy cabbage, and for whatever reason, I immediately became obsessed with stuffing it. Why? Couldn’t tell you. I’d never cooked stuffed cabbage; in fact, I’m not sure I’d ever even eaten it. But every time I opened my fridge and saw the huge, beautiful cabbage in there, I kept thinking, “I want to put beef in you.”
That, friends, is how mistakes get made. And eaten.
I had a couple of technique guides in Smitten Kitchen and Bittman, which is how I learned that the rice goes into the rolls uncooked and that you blanch the cabbage first to make it pliable. Cool. Good. Got it. Except … how do you get this:
to stay inside a tiny, floppy cabbage leaf?
You don’t. Or, um, I don’t. Bittman recommended trimming the vein out of the cabbage, then trimming each half even more so it was a rectangle. Yeah, a rectangle the size of my middle finger, which is what I wanted to give this whole project about halfway through. I could get about a fingernail’s worth of filling in that teeny little piece of cabbage, and even that went squirting out the seam when I tried to ever-so-gently burrito-roll it up. Eventually, I gave up on slicing and went with one whole cabbage leaf per roll, vein and all, figuring a tough cabbage roll would still be better than no cabbage roll at all.
Somehow, it all worked out once the rolls got into the sauce. It’s true what the recipes say: they really do steam themselves into little packets of deliciousness. We had some extra filling that we tossed, unwrapped, into the sauce at the same time as the rolls, and it turned out to be a delicious addition — shocking to me because I can’t cook rice decently under normal circumstances, much less in a pot of bubbling ad-hoc tomato sauce. And the cabbage vein thing wasn’t really an issue; I mean, it’s not like we were eating tree trunks or something.
A pretty decent first attempt, at least. (Though maybe a larger cabbage next time?)
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
Large-ish leaves from one large-ish cabbage
2/3 lb. ground beef
3/4 c. rice (I used white; brown presumably takes longer, or I guess you could cook it first)
One medium onion, chopped
One carrot, shredded
A couple of turnips or a parsnip, shredded
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
28 oz. crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon chili powder (my crushed tomatoes were “fire-roasted,” so I ran with a spicy theme)
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the cabbage leaves in the water a few at a time for about 45 seconds each, then drain and rinse with cold water.
2. Saute half the chopped onion, the carrot, the turnip/parsnip, and the garlic in some olive oil until softened.
3. In a large bowl, combine the uncooked ground beef and uncooked rice, mixing and breaking up any clumps with a wooden spoon. Stir in the veggies and season with salt, pepper, and chili powder.
4. In a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven — I re-used the same pot that I’d cooked onion and carrots in — saute the other half of the chopped onion. Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper, and simmer.
5. While the sauce simmers, prep the cabbage rolls by any means necessary. For me, it was best to leave the vein in the cabbage, plop a couple of tablespoons of filling in the center, and roll the leaf like a burrito. If you have larger cabbage leaves, you might be able to cut out the vein at least partially. Do what works. It’ll be OK.
6. Place the rolls, seam-down, in the simmering sauce. Add any extra filling to the sauce, if desired.
7. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 30-45 minutes. If the sauce gets too thick, you can add a bit of water to it. If you’re smart, as I wasn’t, you’ll also occasionally stir the sauce so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of your pan.