Once thought to be peasant food, cabbage rolls are popping up on menus everywhere — including high-end restaurants. A cabbage roll is essentially a dish consisting of cooked or pickled cabbage leaves wrapped around a filling of meat seasoned with garlic, onions, and spices along with some type of starch such as rice or barley. They’re then baked, simmered or steamed in thinned tomato juice or stock (over the stove or in the oven) and eaten warm, often accompanied by a sauce of some sort or just sour cream. They are widely enjoyed in various parts of Eastern Europe and even the Middle East for their delicious, hearty flavour and for economic reasons as this dish can stretch the family dollar to feed a growing family. Historically, fillings contained rice only, since the typical peasant diet was largely vegetarian due to the higher cost of meat but, over time, recipes have evolved to include various types of minced meat.
Variations of cabbage rolls are found the world over and are a staple diet in Croatia, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Sweden, Hungary, and Poland. The Japanese even have a version of their own which is cooked in a miso sauce.
My mum used to make cabbage rolls quite often when we were kids, particularly during the Autumn and Winter months. Her cabbage rolls were delicious — perfectly shaped and bursting with flavour. We grew up in a predominately Jewish neighbourhood so my mum’s recipe was heavily influenced by the Jewish tradition of stewing the cabbage rolls in tomato juice.
And so why have I decided to resurrect an old family favourite, you ask? I recently caught an episode of “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” on the Food Network in which Guy Fieri visited an old school Polish restaurant where they were making Eastern European fare for generations. All their recipes were from scratch and their cabbage roll recipe sounded particularly delicious. Apparently cabbage rolls or Golabki (gaw•WOHMP•kee) as they call it, are the epitome of Polish nourishment and are cooked with a raw meat filling which is slowly baked to perfection then served with an incredible tomato cream sauce. I must have watched that episode on Youtube about 6 times, carefully formulating my version of the recipe and adjusting ingredients until I had it pretty close to what I saw on screen. I did make some variations, however, as most people complain that cabbage rolls are inherently bland as the cabbage lends no real flavour to the meat, so I really spiced up the filling adding paprika and cayenne and cooked the onions and garlic before adding them to the raw meat. I found a similar recipe on the Food Network website by Emeril Lagasse but, again, there were many comments below the recipe saying that the filling was bland, so I was sure to modify my recipe to include just the right amount of spice. Essentially, I fused about 6 different recipes for cabbage rolls (including my mum’s) to create this one.
If you’ve never made cabbage rolls before you simply MUST make this — I know, I know, we’re talking about seemingly boring cabbage rolls here, but trust me when I say this: You are in for a world of flavour with the incredibly delicious seasoned meat nestled in a softened cabbage leaf which is cooked to tender perfection! The sauce that it’s doused with before serving is creamy and bright and elevates this peasant food to new levels of greatness!
To save time, I decided to blanch the individual leaves of the cabbage rather than boiling the entire cabbage. I simply peeled the leaves off the raw cabbage, layer by layer. It was not easy work, as the leaves began to tear but I kept at it until I had at least 8 semi-perfect leaves in which to make my rolls. It took about 7-8 minutes to blanch all of the leaves (the whole ones and the torn pieces) in 2 batches. The other method is to simply remove the core of the cabbage by running your knife around the stem and plucking it out then boiling the entire cabbage whole for 15-20 minutes. This makes removing the softened leaves a breeze. Next time I make this, I will definitely boil the cabbage whole to ensure the leaves peel off without tearing.
Most of the recipes I reviewed (including the ‘Diners, Drive-in’s and Dives’ recipe which inspired this recipe) simply required you to add raw onions and spices to the meat mix but I’m all about creating developed flavour in each stage of the cooking process so I opted to saute the onions and garlic in butter before adding them to the raw meat just to give them that much more flavour.
To take the guess work out of how much filling should go into every leaf, I simply formed 8 equal-sized meatballs which I then used to press into my cabbage leaf to form my rolls.
Okay, so I admit this part of the process is completely artless and rather strange looking. What you’re looking at here are all the torn little bits of cabbage that barely made it off the cabbage head. They, too, were blanched then used to line the bottom of the 9″x13″ pan (as well as the top of the cabbage rolls) to protect the rolls while baking and to keep the moisture in. I reckon if I boiled the cabbage whole, it would have produced full, un-torn leaves in which to line the pan but it is what it is. They got the job done.
So again, I used the leftover pieces of cabbage leaves to line the top of the pan to protect the cabbage rolls as they baked. Historically, before foil was used to protect baked dishes, cabbage leaves were used to serve the same purpose. How resourceful is that? It’s Mother Nature’s foil!
The sauce in the ‘Triple D’ episode seemed a bit lighter than this but I held back on adding too much cream for two reasons: it’s not particularly healthy and I reckon the bright flavour of the tomato would get lost in it. I added the perfect amount of cream to lend the sauce a velvety smoothness while maintaining the delicious flavour of the tomato base.
Don’t be concerned if the cabbage leaves begin to blacken. The rolls underneath are beautifully protected and the burning cabbage leaves will do nothing to alter the flavour or appearance of the rolls.
Cabbage Rolls with Tomato Cream Sauce
1/4 cup salt
1/4 cup white vinegar
Filling for Rolls
1 head cabbage
1 cup cooked rice (you’ll need about ½ cup of uncooked rice to make 1 cup)
1/2 cup (1 small-medium) onion
2 teaspoons (about 2 cloves) garlic
2 tablespoons butter (salted or unsalted)
1 lb medium ground beef
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne (chilli powder)
1 teaspoon each dried oregano + dried thyme (or use 2 teaspoons of Italian Herb Seasoning)
2 tablespoons softened butter
1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes
1/4 cup butter
1 cup (1 large) onion
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon (1 clove) garlic
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups tomato sauce or strained tomatoes
1/2 cup heavy cream (35% M.F.)
1/2 cup chicken stock or water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
parsley for garnish (optional)
Prepare the cabbage: Preheat the oven to 425°F (218°C). Fill a large 8-10 quart pot with water. Add 1/4 cup of salt and 1/4 cup of white vinegar. Allow the mixture to come to a boil while you prepare the cabbage. There are two methods to blanching/pickling the cabbage leaves:
1) You can remove the core of the cabbage by running your knife around the core/stem and plucking it out then boil the entire cabbage whole for 15-20 minutes. This makes removing the softened leaves a breeze.
2) If you are pressed for time, you can simply peel the leaves off the raw cabbage layer by layer – being very careful not to tear the leaves – and drop 4-5 leaves in at a time to blanch them in the boiling water for 3-4 minutes per batch.
Whichever method you choose, once the leaves are blanched, allow them to cool for a few minutes then run your knife along the thick spine (rib), parallel to the bottom of the cabbage leaf to slice it off/remove it, to ensure your leaf can be easily rolled.
Prepare the filling: In a small pot, cook the rice until tender. Drain the water and set the cooked rice aside to cool. In a saucepan, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter. Dice the small-medium onion and add them to the butter. Saute for 4-5 minutes on medium heat until they are lightly browned. Add the 2 teaspoons of garlic and cook for another minute. Set the mixture aside to cool.
In a large bowl, combine the cooked rice, ground beef, egg, salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, dried herbs, and the cooled garlic/onion mixture. Combine the mixture thoroughly using your hands to ensure it is all pressed together. Divide the mixture into 8 equal-sized meatballs. Take a blanched cabbage leaf and place the meatball in the centre of the leaf. Use your finger to shape the ball into an oblong, cylinderical shape. Holding the cabbage in your palm, use the other hand to fold the bottom of the leaf up, encasing the meat. Then bring in the sides, and fold one over the other. Finally fold the top of the leaf down creating a perfectly rectangular parcel. Repeat process with remaining 7 meatballs. Line a 9″x13″ pan with the cabbage leaves that you did not use ensuring that the entire surface and sides of the pan are covered with cabbage leaves to prevent your rolls from sticking to the bottom and burning.. Since some of the leaves may be torn, use those torn bits to fill in any gaps to ensure the surface is completely covered. Line up the 8 cabbage rolls, seam side down, to ensure they don’t open up during the cooking process. Dot the top of the rolls with 2 tablespoons of softened butter. Pour on the diced tomatoes. Finally, use the remaining cabbage leaves to cover the top of the cabbage rolls to protect them from burning during baking. The entire surface should be covered. Bake the rolls in your preheated oven for 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Prepare the sauce: While the rolls are baking, prepare your sauce. Dice the onions coarsely and add to a blender along with 1/4 cup of water. Puree the mixture for a minute (this ensures your sauce is smooth and not dotted with onion pieces). Add 1/4 cup of butter to a large sauce pan. Add the pureed onion mixture and cook for 2-3 minutes. Mince the garlic clove and add it to the butter. Cook for 1 minute. Add the flour and continue whisking the mixture. You are essentially making a roux (a mixture of flour and fat that is cooked to thicken sauces). The mixture will gum up and stick a bit but keep whisking as the raw flour needs to cook off in the butter and slightly toast. Cook for a minute or so before adding in the tomato sauce. Mix vigorously to combine and remove any obvious lumps of which remain from the roux. Add the chicken stock (or water) and cream. Add the salt and pepper and continue to cook the mixture for 3-4 minutes until it starts to boil a bit and thicken. Remove the sauce from the heat and set aside.
Assemble the dish for serving: Once the cabbage rolls are finished baking, remove them from the oven. Carefully peel away the burnt pieces of cabbage from the top and discard. Serve your cabbage roll warm and top each with warm sauce. Garnish with parsley to add colour, if desired.