Saturday, March 9, 2013

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Updated March 4, 2018

About this time of the year I get a taste for cabbage rolls, also know in America as "pigs in a blanket" and by our Polish friends as "galumpkis".

Julian's Cabbage Rolls
Some for tonight, the rest for the freezer.
They are found in many countries and are said to come from the Balkans, but I have found versions of them in other parts of Europe as well. In Europe the filling is traditionally based around meat, often beef, lamb, or pork and is seasoned with garlic, onion, and tomato just as we make it here in the United States. Here in the US this dish is often thought of as Irish, although I've never seen it on a menu there.  These are also similar to foods you find in several Asian cultures, which also might include seafood and mushrooms, but not typically with the tomato sauce. So it seems everyone loves them, at least on special occasions.

Julian's 'Pigs in a Blanket'
I say on special occasions because they do take some time to prepare.  This week I made the entire recipe from scratch as noted below and it took two and half hours from start until they were placed in the oven.  Add another hour for baking and you can see why you don't make these when you're in a hurry or have many other things to prepare.  The good news is that they freeze wonderfully.  You can freeze part of the batch below for use later (as it makes about 16-18 rolls of various sizes based on the cabbage) or freeze the entire batch individually without the sauce.  Do this on a cookie sheet with parchment paper and when frozen through transfer to freezer bags for storage up to three months. When ready to use, just make or purchase sauce and cover them with it for baking, noting that frozen rolls take longer to bake and require an instead-read thermometer to determine when they are cooked through, usually about 2 hours if you start them covered and uncover halfway through baking.

The Pre-preparation Steps for Cabbage Rolls

  Make Sauce   Saute Aromatics    Mix Meats    Boil Cabbage    Extract Leaves

Technique tip:  Most I've talked with don't like making these because they have a difficult time removing the leaves from the cabbage without damaging them. If you watch the show on Food Network where they make these, that part of the work is done off-screen.  Rather than attempt to carefully peel the leaves away from the head before blanching, my sister provided me with the tip which works perfectly every time.  Simply cut the core out and submerse the entire head in the boiling water.  The leaves slowly peel off, with just a little help from your tongs.  No fuss no muss! Instructions included below.

Ready to Roll
If you're looking for that special ethnic meal that grandma used to make, give this recipe a try.  If you've never had them, consider making them with family or friends, as everyone can pitch in and roll them up.  Don't worry if you have people that 'don't like cabbage' as the blanching removes all of the strong tastes and smells typically associated with the vegetable.  I've never served these to anyone that hasn't enjoyed them.


Sweet and Sour Tomato Sauce:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 cans (14 ounces each or similar) tomatoes crushed/diced/sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cabbage Rolls:
11/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 stalk fresh celery, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped or minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/3 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons chopped dried parsley
2 pound ground meat (beef, pork, Italian sausage combination)
1 large egg
2 - 3 cups white rice
2 tablespoons dried oregano
3 tablespoons dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
8-10 grinds of black pepper
1 large head green cabbage

Ingredient Notes:
With regard to the sauce, you can use this recipe or substitute with canned Italian pasta sauce.  This recipe provides a bit more authentic taste, having the sweet/sour component and excluding the traditional Italian spices, but using a pre-made quality product will speed up your preparation.  If you make the sauce as shown here, note I indicate you can use tomato sauce, crushed or diced tomatoes.  The choice is really yours and how smooth or chunky you would like the final product to be.  I started with diced tomatoes as I had a large supply on hand, then used a stick blender to make the sauce more smooth.  

With regard to the meat, most traditional recipes call for 1 pound each of beef and pork.  I usually purchase a ground beef/pork combo pack which usually is about 1.5 to 1.7 pounds.  To this I supplement with mild Italian sausage for extra flavor.  You really can use any combination you prefer.  I think the ideal combination of meat is 1/3 of each.  


Sauce: Coat a large saucepan with the oil and place over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and paste, and cook stirring occasionally for about 5-10 minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar and simmer about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.

Meat Filling: Cook the rice according the package directions. Remove 1 cup cooked rice and set aside to cool. The remainder may be kept warm in a rice cooker or reheated later when serving the cabbage rolls over steamed rice.

Place a skillet over medium heat and coat with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Sauté the onion and celery for about 3 minutes and then add the garlic and continue cooking and stirring until soft about 1 minutes more. Stir in the tomato paste, wine, parsley, and 1/2 cup of the prepared sweet and sour tomato sauce, mix to incorporate and cook until reduced to a paste, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

Place the ground meat, cooled white rice and vegetable mix in a large mixing bowl. Add the egg, oregano, basil, salt and pepper. Combine the mixture using a large spoon or your hands.

Cabbage: Cut out the core of the cabbage with a sharp knife and remove any large spotted or damaged leaves.  Place the entire head into a large pot and fill with cold water until it floats about an inch or two from the bottom.  Remove the head of cabbage and place the pot on the cocktop over high heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of salt and bring the water to a low boil. While the water comes to a boil, prepare a work surface (or cookie sheet) with paper towels and a large bowl of cold water with ice cubes.

Adding the sauce before baking
Carefully place the entire head of cabbage into the boiling water.  In several minutes the outer leaves will begin to come away from the head. Using kitchen tongs remove them from the pot to the cold water to stop cooking. Then move to the paper towels to drain. Continue to pull the leaves gently from the head with tongs until all of the leaves are removed from the head. Save all cooked leaves that you believe may be usable for stuffing. Take the remaining small inner leaves and chop them and stir into the meat mixture.

Assembly:  Prepare a baking dish coated with food release or lightly with oil.  Coat the bottom with the prepared tomato sauce.  Preheat the oven to 350F degrees.

Select the largest blanched cabbage leaves first.  On leaves with large veins, carefully cut out the center vein so they will be easier to roll up.  Put about 1/2 cup of the meat filling in the center bottom of a blanched cabbage leaf and starting at what was the stem-end, fold forward once, then tuck in the sides and roll up the cabbage to enclose the filling. Place the cabbage rolls side by side in rows, seam-side down, in the prepared baking dish. Pour the remaining sweet and sour tomato sauce over the cabbage rolls.

Bake: Place in the preheated oven and bake uncovered for 1 hour until the meat is cooked and the sauce is bubbling. Check after 40 minutes and if the pan is becoming too dry, cover for the remainder of baking.

Serve:  Serve two rolls per person for dinner.  Sprinkle with chopped parsley.  Serve over warm white rice.

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