I love experimenting with different versions of recipes–and stuffed cabbage offers many alternatives, especially with the internet input. I even found a Kosher site which presented unique points of view, such as adding additional cabbage in the form of sauerkraut in the sauce! What a surprise when I saw the Yamaka-wearing man toss half a cup of sauerkraut in the bowl! Interesting too was when I recently watched a chef on the internet cook her version of stuffed cabbage. During her presentation, she told the viewing audience that her Mom, probably in the 1950s and 60s, added grape jelly to the tomato sauce. And too, a few days later, in a luncheon I was attending, another lady, 70 years old, told me about eating stuffed cabbage with grape jelly when she was a child. So, in the past, grape jelly has been an ingredient in several versions of this iconic dish. And finally, to expand on the significant and tradition of stuffed cabbage, the author and chef, Joan Nathan, during her travels at international dinners sat with several cooks. One lady cooked a stuffed cabbage dish from Argentina, another lady cooked a similar dish, and she was from Austria, and still another person resided in Hungary. Each infused their own ritualistic sauces into this ancient concept of stuffing meat and other ingredients into cabbage leaves. Tradition, tradition. Many dishes began centuries ago, as traders, cooks and farmers discovered and grew ingredients, and cooked foods to enhance their dishes for friends and family. Some foods, once cooked, were tangy others sweet, and some were an academical mix of each!
I ate stuffed cabbage as a child, as our Hungarian cook/housekeeper prepared it for my parents and us four children. I didn’t watch her cook it, but I certainly recall its satisfying, comforting taste. “Comfort Food”, that phrase, has recently turned iconic! I hear it all the time on a Denver restaurant show I listen to regularly. Many times those words are spoken by the host and callers. Where can we find “Comfort Food”, they ask? Stuffed cabbage hits the target, especially for its taste as well as for its many economical uses.
For people with tight budgets, or for those folks searching for creative ideas with cabbage, leftover plain cabbage can be saved, buttered and seasoned with herbs, such as sage, dill, and thyme. They can use this vegetable as a separate side dish with other foods, or stirred in with chicken, ground beef or mixed with whatever foods strike your creative impulses! Perhaps cabbage is the new kale, ha?!
Cabbage, cooked or raw, mixes well with so many foods, such as pork, lamb, tongue, corned beef, ham, potatoes, in stir fries, with hot dogs, layered in casseroles etc. In main dishes or sides, cabbage is indeed versatile, highly underused, and undervalued.
1 lb. hamburger – 85%
1 medium to large head savory or green cabbage, core removed
1-2 Tbsp olive or vegetable oil
1 large onion, minced
3-5 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 – 3/4 cup sauerkraut, from a glass jar, most of the liquid squeezed out
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar or 1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp Maggie seasoning or soy sauce
4 1/2 cup canned tomatoes, crushed or mashed
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1-3 tsp salt, or to taste, divided – roughly 2 teaspoons in the sauce, the other one in the meat and rice mixture
1 tsp pepper, divided
1 tsp sweet or smoky paprika
1 1/2 cup cooked rice
sesame seeds (optional)
1 In a large pot of boiling well-salted water, place the cabbage. Or, if the pot is too small, cut the cabbage in half. Cook the cabbage on medium-high heat for 20-25 minutes, depending on its size. You want the cabbage tender, but not mushy. Remove it to a plate, let cool for 10-20 minutes. Carefully remove outer leaves until you have gathered about 14- 18 leaves. Sometimes they may break or fall apart, but there is no concern. If some are broken or ripped halves, you’ll be able to roughly fold them together to eventually make a full pocket-like enclosure. Gather leftover or shredded pieces of cabbage or those near the core. You may have about two plus cups. Save these.
2 In a large pan, heat the oil on medium high heat. Add the onion, cook for 5-7 minutes as the pieces turn translucent, slightly golden while stirring occasionally. Add the garlic cloves, turn the heat to low and cook another minute. Add the tomato sauce, sugars, soy sauce, salt, pepper, cider vinegar, Italian seasoning, sauerkraut and paprika. Raise the heat to medium low and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reduces and thickens, about 20 percent, tasting along the way. Check the sauce to see if it needs more tang with extra apple cider vinegar, about one tablespoon, or sweetness, about one tablespoon of sugar, or salt, to your personal taste. Let the sauce sit, with the heat off.
3 In a large bowl incorporate the meat and the rice. Don’t overly mix, which would toughen the meat. Add salt and pepper and stir in 1 to 1 1/2 cups of the sauce. Don’t let the mixture become too gloppy or watery, use a little less sauce, if necessary. Set this aside. In a casserole that measures approximately 12 x 10 inches, evenly spread on the bottom all the leftover pieces of cabbage from step. 1 Spread about 2 cups of the sauce from step 2 over the cabbage. Set the oven at 375 degrees.
4 Begin the rolling process. On a flat surface or a cutting board, add one ice cream scoop size of the meat-rice filling to a large piece of cabbage, mostly flattened. (To do this, trim off or cut the hard center thick rib part.) Fold the cabbage over in one long direction to totally cover the meat filling. Next, fold in each of the sides. Fold again the long way. Make sure all the meat filling is encased. Place the stuffed cabbage, seam down in the casserole, on top of the sauce. Complete this process as you finish all the meat filling while you nestle the cabbage rolls next to each other. You may need another small casserole dish. Top any leftover sauce on the cabbage rolls. Top with a sprinkling of white sesame seeds.
5 Cook for 45 minutes until bubbly. Cool 5-10 minutes and enjoy!
TIPS AND TWEAKS
- Instead of all beef, use half ground pork.
- If onions are not available, use two leeks, washed well, sliced (don’t use the top 3 or 4 inches of the green part of the leeks), or a dozen scallions or a little more, sliced.
- Instead of the canned tomatoes, use tomato sauce, or tomato sauce with herbs, such as basil, oregano, dill, thyme, or whatever other herbs you like. Add additional spice with pieces of cut up hot peppers, such as hatch, chili, Italian sweet, or other selections. Use cayenne pepper, judiciously, or garam masala, for an Indian flavored dish. Be cautious about the level of heat, depending on who you serve.
- for a thicker tomato sauce, as you finish sauteing the onions and garlic, add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, stir and cook on medium low for two minutes and then incorporate the other ingredients at step 2.
- When sauteing the onions at step 2, add 8 ounces of any kind of mushrooms, cut up. Cook an additional 3 minutes on low, and cover the top for that amount of time, then continue with the garlic, uncovered.
- For more of a natural sweet taste, add a handful or two of raisins at the beginning of step 3.