Homecoming Cabbage Rolls
Before every trip to Cleveland, I would call my mom to let her know what time I would be getting into town and to slide in a request for her cabbage rolls. There’s always a batch waiting for me when I get to her house. Her cabbage rolls are the best cabbage rolls. And they always taste exactly how I remember them from the time before and the time before. When I crave my mom’s cooking, I don’t want any surprises. Homecoming food is not about surprises. It’s about familiar flavours reminding you of everything that is good about being home.
With all this gushing, you’d think that I came out of the womb asking for cabbage rolls. But that’s not the case. I didn’t really like them until I was about 10 or 11. Before that, I tolerated them when my mom made them for dinner. I thought the cabbage ‘skin’ (as I would call it) was gross so I would peel it all off and then sneak it onto my dad’s plate so he would eat it. I would then douse the bare stuffing with a thick layer of ketchup. My parents would cast looks my way, watching the tragedy unfolding on my plate. My dad would say to me “you don’t know what’s good.” I would mutter back a not entirely confident response saying otherwise.
My mom and I are two women that have a hard time finding common ground. Spending time in the kitchen with one another while she teaches me her recipes is one place where our relationship feels a bit easier than anywhere else. I’ve helped her make cabbage rolls a number of times and have learned how she does it. So, now, when I crave her cabbage rolls but I won’t be making it home soon, I can whip them up myself. When I first made them on my own they had that familiar homemade taste. Getting it right felt like such an accomplishment.
Ok – I have to be honest. They almost had that bang on taste of my mom’s cabbage rolls. Here’s why:
When I first made them with her, I found out her secret ingredient. She pulled it out of her pantry – this large blue shiny package. The name on it was Vegeta. Uh…what? My mom offers up, “It gives such a good taste. I add it to a lot of my cooking.” (This is said in Ukrainian that’s why the translation sounds a bit funny.) “Oh, I think this has MSG in it” I say, continuing with, “I don’t think we should use it.” Uh oh. Silence. Am I really telling my mom how things should roll in her own kitchen? No response from my mom; she just keeps doing what she’s doing. But I’m a bit disarmed thinking that MSG is what makes her food taste so good. And does she put it in everything? Whatever. If my mom’s cabbage rolls have MSG in them, then so be it. I love them regardless of that fact. And I love when she cooks my favourite foods for me.
The recipe here just differs a wee bit from my mom’s. The only difference being the lack of Vegeta used. To boost the flavour, I add some aromatic vegetables to the tomato sauce and broth as opposed to water to the roasting pan before the cabbage rolls go into the oven. I think it’s a 99% match to her recipe, no MSG required.
2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups passata or crushed tomatoes
1 cup white, long grain rice
1 medium or large onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
500 grams ground pork
1 medium cabbage
2-3 bay leaves
about 1 cup stock, chicken or vegetable
To make the tomato sauce:
I like all of the aromatic vegetables to be very finely minced so that the tomato sauce has a quite smooth consistency. You can either do this by hand which would take quite a bit of effort or use a food processor. I like to use a food processor to make quick work of this. Toss the roughly chopped vegetables in and pulse until very, very finely minced. The mixture should almost be a puree.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium low heat. Add the vegetables to the pan and cook, stirring frequently, until they soften. Do not let them colour. Add the passata (or crushed tomatoes) and season with salt and pepper. Cook over a low simmer for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and cover to keep warm while you get on with the rest of the recipe.
To make the stuffing:
Cook the rice and drain. Set aside to cool.
Heat the olive oil over medium low heat in a sauté pan. Add the finely diced onion to the pan and cook, stirring frequently, for about ten minutes until the onions are soft and translucent. Set aside to cool.
In a larger size bowl, add the ground pork, cooked onions and rice. Season with salt and pepper. Using your hands (hands are best!), mix the stuffing well. To check if your seasoning is good for you, take a small bit of the stuffing, fry it until it’s fully cooked and give it a try. My mom would just try the stuffing raw, tasting it for seasoning. But her stomach is iron clad. I wouldn’t recommend her method.
The stuffing should be roughly equally made up of cooked rice and ground meat. If the balance is too skewed towards meat then the stuffing becomes too heavy and brick-like. This is poor food – the rice was meant to stretch the meat to accommodate more servings than it ever could without the rice.
Refrigerate the stuffing until ready to use.
To prep the cabbage leaves:
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. The pot should be large enough to submerge a cabbage head completely in water.
Remove the most outer leaves of the cabbage head. Flip it upside down so that the base of it is facing up. Using a paring knife (a knife sharp and nimble), remove the entire core. Submerge the cored cabbage head into the boiling water. After about five minutes the first layer of leaves should be soft enough to remove. They should come off easily without much pulling or tugging. Using tongs and being careful not to tear the now tender leaves, remove the leaves and place them aside on a plate. After a couple more minutes, then next layer of cabbage leaves should be ready to remove. Keep going until all of the sizeable leaves have been removed. All of the leaves you’ll need for the cabbage rolls should be larger than the size of your hand (please note: I have small hands).
The leaves should be cool enough to handle pretty soon after they come out of the water. Now you’ll need to trim the tough rib that runs up the middle of the leaf. Using your paring knife, cut off the big bump of the rib so that it’s as flat as the rest of the leaf.
Now you’re ready to put everything together.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
This recipe will result in about 15-16 cabbage rolls. So, keeping that in mind, pick your baking dish. Whatever you bake it in, it should have a tight fitting lid. I used a 4.5-quart French round oven.
Place a cabbage leaf with the bottom facing you. Using your hands or a large spoon (I use my hands!), place about ½ cup of the stuffing at the base of the leaf and shape it into an oval.
You might use a bit more or a bit less of stuffing depending on the individual size of the cabbage leaf. Fold in the sides of the leaf and roll up, making sure the sides stay in. Keep going, stuffing all the cabbage leaves until all of your stuffing is gone. Spoon enough sauce to cover the bottom of the baking dish.
Place the rolled, stuffed cabbage snuggly into the baking dish with the seam side down.
Depending on the size of your baking dish, you might need to place a second layer of the cabbage rolls on top of the first layer. No matter if your cabbage rolls are in one layer or two or three, they need to be snugly tucked in. Once they’re all in, place your bay leaves in between some of the rolls. Spoon the rest of the tomato sauce over the cabbage rolls. Pour your stock over the top of the cabbage rolls. Lightly shimmy the baking dish back and forth so that the liquids are evenly distributed amongst the rolls.
Seal the top of the baking dish with aluminum foil. Place the lid on the dish so that cabbage rolls are well insulated. Cook in the pre-heated oven for an hour and a half to two hours.
Cabbage rolls always taste better the day after they’re made. I’m not asking you to hold off eating them for a whole day. I know – after all that work that would be unthinkable. All I’m saying is that your leftovers will be quite tasty.
As mentioned, this recipe makes about 15-16 cabbage rolls. That would be about 4-5 servings. This recipe could be easily multiplied to make more.