Prior to November, what I knew of stuffed cabbage rolls were limited to the Jewish/Eastern European variety, which I make the way my mother-in-law does. I hadn’t given it further thought because as far as I was concerned, it was never broken, and needed little improvement, and when there’s little room for me to tinker in the kitchen, I quickly lose interest. But if I had, it might have occurred to me that cabbage, being one of the ultimate peasant foods, has probably been wrapped around meat that’s been ground and then stretched (always budget-minded, those peasants) with other ingredients and cooked in a sauce in a zillion different ways over the centuries. And oh, the fun we might have been having this whole time.
As it turns out, it could be argued that any region that can grow large cabbage leaves is indeed stuffing them with something. The most cursory of Google searches leads one on a tour of Greek lahanodolmathes, stuffed with ground beef and rice and covered with a traditional egg and lemon (avgolemono) sauce; French chou farci, stuffed with beef or pork, sometimes mushrooms, wrapped in large layers of cabbage leaves and served in wedges; Polish gloabki, or “little pigeons,” with pork and beef, and rice or barley (sigh); Slovak holubky or halupki; Serb or Croatian sarma with (hold me) sauerkraut and ham hocks, and Arabic mahshi malfouf which adds lemon juice, cinnamon and mint (swoon) to the usual ground meat and rice medley. And guys, I’m just getting started. The idea that there are this many ways to fall in love with stuffed cabbage torments me, and leaves me daydreaming about a Westeros-length winter wherein we could audition each one.
For today, however, I am just going to take you to Italy, via Vancouver, in a tiny, wonderful restaurant called La Quercia, where everything I thought I knew about stuffed cabbage was hatched open by a single appetizer shared by a group in a sea of dishes that was so delicious, I am not sure anyone but me noticed. But still, I haven’t been able to forget it. I did what I always do when an idea obsesses me, I jotted it near the top on a list of recipe ideas that I swear, stretches longer than Manhattan right now, and vowed to find my way back to it as soon as possible. It wasn’t even necessary, because three months later, it came to me, when my favorite English person in Rome wrote about none other than mondeghini in/al sugo.
You could say I ran to the kitchen. And yet, when a dish torments you as long as this one has and you finally have a potential path to unlocking its greatness at home, am I the only one who melodramatically fears disappointment? Will this really be it at last? Will it take another twenty rounds to get it right — will the perfectly seasoned, tender, featherlight meatballs wrapped lovingly inside a gorgeous doily of a cabbage leaf all still elude me? Will it have the simple sauce, flecked with bright, plump tomato bits? Or will be the a cruel victory, a dish that’s in fact perfect, but such a pest to make that you’ll only do so once a year.
Not this one; this one exceeded every expectation. Not only did it taste exactly as good as I remembered it, but it was the easiest stuffed cabbage I have ever made: there’s just about nothing to chop, no pile of mirepoix that you must work your knife through, again and again. You really don’t saute a thing; there are no chopped onions that are promised to soften and sweeten in 5 minutes but actually take 15. There were no false promise of profound flavor that fall weakly on the plate. My goodness, even the (currently) pickiest three year-old on earth applauded these “meatballs,” and when this happens, I encourage you to buy double what you need, because you’ll be making it again that very week.
One year ago: Double Coconut Muffins
Two years ago: White and Dark Hearted Brownies and Green Bean Salad with Frieds Almonds
Three years ago: Chocolate Souffle Cupcakes with Mint White Chocolate Cream and Spaghetti with Cheese and Black Pepper
Four years ago: Toasted Coconut Shortbread, Devil’s Chicken Thighs and Hot Fudge Sauce
Five years ago: Seven Yolk Pasta Dough, Best Chocolate Pudding, Pasta Puttanesca + Broken Artichoke Hearts Salad
Six years ago: Mom’s Chocolate Chip Meringues and Vegetable Dumplings
This dish is a mid-winter delight, budget-minded, not terribly complicated to make, hearty and delicious — wilted cabbage leaves, a tender meatball and a simple, bright sauce. It went instantly into our rotation of favorite cold-weather dishes.
The recipe’s original measurements were in metrics; I have done my best to translate them, but not accurately as I made some tweaks (slightly higher proportion of sausage to bread, etc.) to taste.
For the bread, you can use white bread (as originally called for) or whatever you have around. I had a day-old hunk of whole wheat sourdough miche that was absolutely delicious in here, and I was happy to rescue it. If necessary, the bread can be soaked in water instead of milk. Chicken sausage could probably replace the pork nicely. And if you’re like me, and totally forgot to get fresh herbs, and skip them, nothing terrible happens since the sausage should already be well-seasoned. Cabbage rolls are typically formed like an egg roll — folded in sides, rolled up filling — but I was so taken by the packets we had in Vancouver, wrapped almost like a wine bottle and pinned at the top for cooking only, that I wanted to emulate that here. Any shape will work.
Makes approximately 12 cabbage rolls; a serving can range from 2 (petitely) to 3 per person. I took Rachel’s lead and served it with mashed potatoes; these are decadent.
1 large savoy cabbage
7-ounce (200-gram) hunk of bread (see above), crusts cut away, torn into small scraps (you’ll have about 3 loose cups of scraps)
2/3 cup (approximately 150 ml) whole milk
14 ounces (400 grams) or approximately 4 plain pork sausages (I used sweet — i.e. non-spicy — Italian), casings removed
1 small sprig of sage, finely chopped
1 small sprig of rosemary, finely chopped
2 tablespoons grated parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 28-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons (30 ml) olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
Prepare cabbage: Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Discard any messy or broken outer cabbage leaves and carefully peel 12 nice, large leaves. (I think the cabbage can tell if you’re in a rush, and will tear more easily. Work carefully. That said, a torn leaf will hardly ruin the dish.) Blanch leaves for about 30 seconds to 1 minute (you can do a few at at time), until wilted, and spread out on towels so that they dry and cool.
Make filling: Place bread scraps in bottom of large bowl and pour milk over. Let sit for a few minutes, then mash it gently with a spoon until something close to a paste forms. Mix with sausage meat, herbs, parmesan and a pinch or two of salt and black pepper; I find this easiest with a fork or bare hands.
Make the cabbage rolls: Lay your first cabbage leaf on the counter. If it doesn’t want to lay flat, pare away some of the thickest stalk (with a paring knife or vegetable peeler) to make it easier. Form some of the filling mixture into a golf ball-sized round. Wrap cabbage leaf around it (see Note about shape up top) and pin at the top with a toothpick. Repeat with remaining leaves and mixture.
Make the sauce: To prepare your tomatoes, either break them up with your hands (for bigger chunks), run them through a food mill or roughly chop them right in their can with scissors (what I did here). In a heavy saute pan with a lid or a medium (5 to 6-quart) Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute for about 30 seconds (just until golden, not a moment longer) then add the tomatoes, bringing the sauce to a gently boil. Season with salt if needed. Add cabbage packages, arranging them carefully in the pan so they all fit, cover the pot and gently simmer them for 25 minutes. Remove the toothpicks and carefully turn the rolls over, cooking them for another 25. Remove the lid and simmer for another 10 minutes to cook off some of the wetness. They’re all cooked now, but if you can rest them for another 15 minutes before eating them, the flavors settle and they become even better.
Okay, now you can dig in. Repeat frequently, yes?