September 23, 2012

Autumn's here: Cabbage Rolls

Cabbage rolls are one of those quintessential comfort foods for anyone with even a passing relationship to the cuisines of northern or eastern Europe, and of course the middle east, central asia, and the eastern mediterranean regions also have stuffed leaf and vegetable dishes with considerable similarities. Did I leave anyone out? Probably. (Sorry.) Stuffing food with other food and wrapping it up, whether you start with dough or a leaf, just seems to be a universal development in almost every cuisine.

If someone tells me that he or she is making cabbage rolls, my first question is "Oooh, what kind?" - closely followed by offers of help eating up any pesky leftovers, of course. In western Canada we tend to favour either the Ukrainian or Polish styles most of all, and the ones I've made here are a sort of unholy hybrid of every cabbage roll that I've ever found to be delicious. These ones are made with meat (beef, specifically) and rice, but there are plenty of options for vegetarian/vegan fillings (I would suggest a rice/walnut/mushroom blend, for starters).

A lot of recipes will suggest that you braise the cabbage rolls in tomato soup. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while already know that I shy away from tinned soup as an ingredient for my casseroles and such, and I am not recommending tins of soup here, either. Rather, I humbly suggest my very own Simple Tomato Soup recipe, made exactly as listed. It comes together really quickly, and you can also make it a day ahead (or stash some in the freezer, and simply thaw it out when you are ready to make cabbage rolls). One recipe of Simple Tomato Soup is perfect for one tray of 12 large cabbage rolls.

I recommend savoy cabbage, which is easier to peel without tearing the leaves.

Cabbage Rolls

Makes 12 rolls
Total Prep & Cooking Time: 3 - 4 hours

1 Savoy cabbage, whole
500 grams lean ground beef
1/2 onion, very finely minced
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon water
100 grams (1/2 cup) long grain rice (uncooked)
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon mushroom base (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 egg, beaten
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (to finish)

1 recipe Simple Tomato Soup, made as directed here. You could also use a thin, tomato-based pasta sauce, or even simply use beef, chicken, mushroom, or veggie broth, and serve the rolls "dry" with sour cream. You will need about four cups of soup/braising liquid.

Prepare the soup, or, if defrosting, heat the soup until it is serving temperature.

In a small saucepan, bring water and mushroom base to a boil. Add the rice and stir quickly with a fork. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 10 minutes, then turn off and leave for another 10 minutes. The rice will be slightly underdone - chalky. That's perfect. Combine with the onions and garlic, and let the mixture cool a bit while you deal with the cabbage.

Cut the cabbage deeply, all the way around the core (about half an inch out from the core knob). Peel the outermost leaves, starting from the base of the cabbage, gently pushing up until the leaves come free. You can do this step a day ahead, and loosely bag and refrigerate the leaves (they will take up a lot of room). You will want 12 good, big, whole leaves, plus a couple of spares.

Trim the leaves by shaving down the thick central spine with a paring knife, and cut a small, thumb-tip sized v-shape at the base of each leaf to remove the toughest bit.

Bring a large saucepan of unsalted water to a boil. Add cabbage leaves and cook for 2 to 4 minutes or until softened, and drain. You can also soften the cabbage leaves by dipping them in water and microwaving them, 2 at a time, for about 60 seconds.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the raw beef (broken into tiny bits), cooked rice mixture, egg, salt and pepper, and parsley, along with 1 tablespoon of tomato paste combined with one tablespoon of water. Mix thoroughly, using your impeccably clean hands, until everything is nicely integrated.

Prepare a 9x13" baking dish by ladling about half a cup of the tomato soup into the bottom of the dish, and swirling it to cover the bottom thinly. Some folks like to chop up the core of the cabbage, along with any leftover leaves, and put that in the bottom, too, as a bed for the cabbage rolls. This is a great way to use up the rest of the cabbage, as well as making sure you get plenty of veggies in your dinner.

Divide the beef mixture into 12 portions, and roll them up: this bit is awesome, but messy: Dip the softened cabbage leaves in the tomato soup/sauce, and microwave them, two at a time, again (unless they are completely floppy) for about 30 seconds. This tomato-dipping of the leaves is optional, but very flavourful.

Lay a limp, tomato-y cabbage leaf on your plate or cutting board, and add a portion of the meat to the lower third of the leaf. Flip the bottom (stem edge) up and over, bringing the points of the "v" closed so that it makes a tight package. Hold that with one hand, while you tuck the sides in (as if you were making a burrito, or an envelope), and then finish rolling up the leaf. A little practice, and this isn't as difficult as it might sound.

Place each roll, seam side down, in the prepared baking dish. You should get two rows of six, filling the pan. Pour the tomato sauce (or any other braising liquid of your choice) gently and evenly over each roll, using all of the soup, cover with tinfoil, and place in a cold oven. Set the oven to 325 F, and set the timer for 2 hours. Remove foil, and sprinkle with smoked paprika before serving.

Serve with sour cream (or plain yoghurt), mixed with a little dill. Perogies (pierogies), naturally, make a fantastic side dish, but so do plain boiled potatoes, or roasted carrots. Obviously, if you need to hurry the process up a bit, set the oven to temperature before you start rolling up the cabbage leaves, and bake for 90 minutes.

These freeze excellently, as well. Make your own ready-meals!

For the curious, here's a picture of the cabbage rolls just before they go into the oven (see how perky the cabbage still is!):

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