cabbage rolls

When we were married thirty years ago, I knew almost nothing about cooking. I could bake, if there was a box involved. Otherwise, I was useless. I remember calling my mother-in-law one morning, a couple months into our newly-wedded bliss,”How do you make French toast?” She graciously explained the simple process and wished me luck.

She never made me feel badly about my shortcomings in the kitchen. Over the years she taught me a lot about cooking, canning, and feeding a hungry family. She’d gained lots of experience in filling hungry bellies with nine children on a dairy farm! I became a pretty decent cook, if I do say so myself, thanks mostly to her tutelage.

But I never did learn to enjoy it all that much. So I also hoped she’d never find out how many times her son managed to get by with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Just one of many unmentionables consumed in our home that my M-i-L would rather have died than serve!

I don’t cook much at all since the chids have grown and gone. But at least when I do, I enjoy it more. Tonight was a rare treat because one of my daughter-in-laws requested a how-to session on cabbage rolls. I was only happy to oblige, remembering how my mother-in-law taught me her recipe years ago. It felt a bit like passing the baton.

The recipe and steps below are for meat-based cabbage rolls. They are pretty simple (as is my entire repertoire!) but the prep is a bit tedious. I’ve divided it into three parts.

Part 1: Cabbage

Select a large, fresh cabbage. Cut a square outline around the core. Segment by cross-hatching within the square. Dig out the core by chunks and discard.

Stick a long fork in the center and submerge in near-boiling water. Turn it as necessary to loosen leaves. As outer leaves separate, remove and and set aside to cool. Some leaves will be useless — if dirty on the very outside, perhaps raggedy or torn. One large head of cabbage will provide 12-18 rolls.

If the leaves are particularly thick, especially as you get closer to the center, you may need to allow longer to soften in the hot water. More processing here reduces oven time somewhat. It also makes them more pliable to roll. Disregard the center-most segment of cabbage, as the leaves become too small. Be sure to trim back the tough rib section on each leaf before filling it.

Prepare a large roasting pan by covering the bottom with a thin layer of red sauce. I use a seasoned spaghetti sauce. You’ll need 3 or 4 regular sized jars before you’re done.

Part 2: Filling

Prepare filling using 2 pounds of raw ground beef, 1 cup (or more) cooked* long grain rice, plus diced onion and seasonings. Guestimate seasonings required to taste good. I use salt, pepper, and either Herbes de Provence or an oregano, basil and thyme combo. You may also add some red sauce to the filling mixture. Sometimes I do — especially if I’ve been a bit zealous with the rice, as I was here! (Then the sauce will help keep the filling moist.) Mash it all together for an even consistency. You’ll probably need to use your hands.

Scoop some filing into a cabbage leaf. Roll the flat, wide end over, tucking under the filling and tucking in the other ends as you go. Turn it over and set it, smooth side up, on the bottom of the pan. Continue filling and rolling until you run out of ingredients. Nestle the rolls snugly in the pan so they’ll remain intact. (I do not use toothpicks. I hate toothpicks!)

Part 3: Finishing

Cover the entire assemblage of rolls evenly with more red sauce. As I empty each jar, I swoosh it out with a small amount of water and distribute the watery sauce as well. (The rice and cabbage absorb more liquid than you might expect.) Be sure the rolls are covered by sauce (more completely than shown) or they will dry out. Bake, covered tightly with foil or lid, at 350 degrees for … awhile.

They always take longer than I expect. It depends partly on the thickness of the leaves and how long they were blanched. Plan for 1.5 hours, give or take. Serve piping hot with chewy bread and hearty ale. Enjoy!

These freeze beautifully but bake them first. Be sure to include enough sauce in each freezer container. They will not separate easily for reheating so freeze in small quantities. Any extra sauce? I freeze that, too; separately, for a quick pasta meal. It has great flavor!

*You can use raw rice but it’s harder to control the results. If so, be sure to add extra water in the last step before baking. (Just don’t settle for Minute Rice!)

I made cabbage rolls for dinner at my house before joining J to make vegetarian cabbage rolls — whereby my D-i-L taught me a thing or two! The vegetarian cabbage rolls utilize the same process but different filling (diced onion, carrots, mushrooms, seasonings, mixed with 4 cups cooked long grain rice). The red sauce was also slightly different — a combination of plain tomato sauce, brown sugar, diced cabbage. Looked delicious!

~René Morley

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