Cabbage Rolls with Tomato Cream Sauce

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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! 

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