Tasty stuffed cabbage: Let's roll

Start with a blanched cabbage leaf, tough stem end trimmed so the finished roll is fork-tender. Place filling on each leaf and get ready to roll. This will be Sesame-Ginger Poached Chicken & Rice Stuffed Cabbage Rolls.
Start with a blanched cabbage leaf, tough stem end trimmed so the finished roll is fork-tender. Place filling on each leaf and get ready to roll. This will be Sesame-Ginger Poached Chicken & Rice Stuffed Cabbage Rolls. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 22, 2013

Stuffed cabbage recipes are the realm of grandmothers and winter.

I grew up with a sweet-and-sour beef and rice version simmered in lemony tomato sauce, just like many other Philadelphians of Jewish descent. We called it prakas, a Yiddish name with roots in Eastern Europe.

Whatever your background, there are likely cabbage roll recipes in your family ancestry.

Poles have golabki, Czechs and Slovaks call it holubky; Turks and Armenians eat dolmas. In Quebec you can ask for cigares au chou. Several Arab cultures make mahshi malfouf.

These peasant foods were a way to extend a small amount of meat - with the only green vegetable in the winter larder - into a hearty and filling main course.

What they all have in common: the leaves of blanched or pickled cabbage wrapped around hearty, flavorful fillings, and the packages then simmered, steamed, or baked until fork-tender.

The most common fillings include ground meat mixed with rice, and chopped vegetables. Many other grains, such as barley and bulgur, feature prominently.

Breadcrumbs, nuts, and legumes such as lentils blend nicely to create hearty combinations with or without meat. Add-ins such as wild mushrooms, kasha, and chopped egg take the flavor toward Eastern Europe.

Garlic, coriander, bulgur, chile, and pistachios evoke the Eastern Mediterranean.

Some recipes call for a filling made with raw meat; others brown or poach the meat first.

Using raw chopped meat and uncooked rice requires a longer simmer and, to me, yields overcooked cabbage. But, for others, this is the taste they prefer.

No matter what the filling, the rolled leaves are always baked after a turn in some sort of seasoned sauce or broth.

The type of cabbage can also alter the dish. While most recipes specify basic green cabbage, crinkled savoy cabbage adds a decorative texture, and large-leaf napa cabbage is a perfect outer layer to roll around a gingery chicken or pork filling.

But cabbage need not be the only option: Kale or Swiss chard also make lovely wrappers.

In Ukraine, it's common to use a garlicky pickled cabbage leaf and balance the tart flavor with some honey or sugar, which is perhaps the origin of the sweet-and-sour combo of many family recipes.

No matter the variation, the basic process calls for the cabbage leaves to be separated from the head. If the leaves are large they can be halved on either side of the thick stem. When using whole leaves, the stem end should be trimmed so that the finished roll is fork-tender. (Napa cabbage leaves can be left intact, as the center rib softens enough when blanched.)

For green or savoy cabbage, the cabbage should be cored, and any leaves that can be removed easily without tearing should be separated and blanched for a minute before being removed with a slotted spoon or tongs to a colander.

Then the remaining head should be blanched for two to four minutes so the individual leaves can be peeled away without tearing.

As for the sauces, the choices are many. A simple tomato sauce works well with many fillings. Those who like sweet and sour can add some brown sugar and lemon juice or vinegar.

Roasted peppers can be pureed with stock to contrast and complement a spicy lamb filling. Rich chicken or veal stock is a lovely poaching liquid for many variations and yields a flavorful brothy sauce.

Seasonings, herbs, fillings, and sauces can be mixed and matched to your family's liking. I've included recipes for my basic family dish, along with my most recent updated favorites: stuffed cabbage with Turkish spiced lamb and roasted pepper sauce, and sesame-ginger poached chicken and rice stuffed cabbage rolls.

Even if you are not, and may never be, a grandmom, you can still create your own stuffed cabbage legacy.


Stuffed Cabbage With Turkish Spiced Lamb & Roasted Pepper Sauce

Makes 12 to 15 cabbage rolls, 6 to 8 servings

1/3 cup coarse bulgur

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, minced

5 cloves garlic, minced fine

1 teaspoon ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 - 1 teaspoon(s) ground Aleppo or Urfa pepper (or paprika)

1 pound ground lamb

2 tablespoons chopped pistachios

3 tablespoons raisins or dried mulberries

Grated rind of half an orange

1 tablespoon dried mint

1 savoy or green cabbage, cored

3 to 4 roasted red peppers, stems removed, peeled and seeded

1/2 - 3/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock

Juice from one orange

Zest from 1/2 orange

Salt

Lots of fresh ground pepper, to taste

For garnish: crumbled feta or fresh chopped mint (optional)

1. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan with pinch of salt. Add the bulgur and cover and let sit until cool. Drain excess water.

2. Heat the oil in a skillet until shimmering over medium-high heat. Lower heat to medium, add the onion, and cook, stirring often, until it is lightly browned. Add the garlic and spices and cook a minute or two more. Turn the heat back up to medium-high and add the lamb, pressing the lamb into the bottom of the skillet. Season well with salt and fresh ground pepper and do not stir. Allow the lamb to brown on the bottom, but remain undercooked on the top. Turn off the heat. Add the cooled bulgur, pistachios, raisins, orange peel, and dried mint. Stir. Taste (some of the most done lamb) and adjust the seasonings. The filling should be assertively seasoned.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Peel any cabbage leaves off of the head that will come off easily. Blanch the remaining head for 3 to 4 minutes and remove to a colander. Blanch the individual leaves for 1 to 2 minutes and remove from the water to a colander. Peel off 15 or 16 leaves.

4. Puree the peppers with the stock, juice, zest, salt, and pepper in a blender or small food processor until smooth. Add enough stock to make mixture the consistency of applesauce.

5. Oil an ovenproof baking dish large enough to hold the cabbage snugly. Pour the pepper sauce into this pan and spread to cover the bottom of the pan evenly.

6. Place one leaf on the counter, stem end toward you. Trim the tough center rib at the stem end, as far up as it seems tough.

7. Put about 1/4-1/3 cup of filling in the bottom of each leaf, fold ½ inch from each side over the center, and roll up (like a burrito), and place the packet seam side down in a baking dish on top of the sauce. Continue until all the filling is used up. Remaining cabbage can be reserved for another use or chopped and tucked into the sides of the baking dish if desired.

8. Cover the baking dish tightly with foil. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 40 minutes.

9. Serve garnished with crumbled feta or fresh chopped mint if desired.

Note: Vegetarian Variation: Use 1 cup of raw bulgur cooked in 2 cups of water, and 1 cup of cooked brown or green lentils in place of the lamb.

Per serving (based on 8): 209 calories, 18 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, 51 milligrams cholesterol, 166 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Sesame-Ginger Poached Chicken & Rice Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Makes 12 to 15 cabbage rolls

3 1/2 cups rich home-made chicken stock, strained, cooled, and fat removed

2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled, sliced, cut into very thin strips

4 cloves garlic, minced

8 bone-in chicken thighs

2 carrots, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds

1 stalk celery, trimmed, minced finely

1 cup jasmine rice (brown or white)

3 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

6 scallions, trimmed and sliced very thin

4 to 6 shiitake mushroom caps, minced

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Salt

Pepper

1 napa, green or savoy cabbage

1. Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a skillet with straight sides. Add ½ of the ginger, ½ of the minced garlic. Add the chicken thighs, carrots, and celery, and simmer gently for 35 minutes, or until the chicken is just cooked through.

2. Remove the chicken from the broth to a bowl. Use tongs or two forks to remove the bones and add them back to the broth. Continue to simmer the broth with the bones while you complete the next several steps.

3. When the chicken has cooled enough to handle, remove the skin and any cartilage and discard. Shred or mince the remaining chicken and reserve in the refrigerator while the rice is cooking.

4. Add the rice to a small saucepan and cover with 11/2 cups of the chicken stock, if using white rice, and 2 cups if using brown. The remaining stock can continue to simmer gently. Cover the rice, bring the rice to a boil, turn the heat to low, and cook until the stock is just absorbed and the rice is still al dente, 10 to 15 minutes for white rice and 25 to 30 minutes for brown. Turn off the burner and let sit in the pan with the lid until needed.

5. In a small saute pan heat the sesame oil, add the scallions and shiitake mushrooms, and cook, stirring often, for 4 to 6 minutes, until both the shiitakes and scallions are softened and just cooked.

6. Combine the shredded chicken with the cooked rice and shiitake-scallion mixture along with the chopped cilantro. Season well with salt and pepper.

7. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. If using napa cabbage, trim off the stem end to release the leaves until you have 12 to 15 nice leaves. With savoy or green cabbage peel any cabbage leaves off of the head that will come off easily without tearing. Blanch the remaining head for 3 to 4 minutes and remove to a colander. Blanch the individual napa or green leaves for 1 to 2 minutes, until just pliable, and remove from the water to a colander. You need a total of about 12 to 15 leaves. Place one cabbage leaf on the counter, stem end toward you. Trim the tough center rib at the stem end as far up as it seems tough.

8. Put about 1/4-1/3 cup of filling in the bottom of each leaf, fold ½ inch from each side over the center, and roll up (like a burrito), and place the packet seam side down in a baking dish. Continue until all of the filling is used up. Add the remaining ginger and garlic to the stock along with salt and pepper to taste. Remove the bones, and carefully place the cabbage rolls into the stock pan in one layer, snug. The broth should come at least halfway up the cabbage rolls, so add a bit of stock or water as needed.

9. Cover with a lid or foil and simmer gently for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve in a bowl with a bit of broth and a few of the carrots.

Note: Substitute raw ground pork, chicken, or turkey for the shredded chicken and cook for 35 to 40 minutes until pork is cooked through.

Per cabbage roll (based on 15): 191 calories, 19 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, 54 milligrams cholesterol, 297 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Grandma Belle's Sweet and Sour Cabbage Rolls (Prakas)

Makes 12 to 15 cabbage rolls, 6 servings

For the sweet and sour tomato sauce:

2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

2 garlic cloves, smashed

1 quart crushed tomatoes

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice or red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon honey or brown sugar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the cabbage rolls:

3 teaspoons vegetable or olive oil

1 yellow onion, chopped fine

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Splash dry red wine

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 1/2 pounds ground beef

1 large egg

3/4 - 1 cup cooked white or brown rice, al dente

3 tablespoons raisins

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 large green cabbage

1. Make the sauce: Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice (or vinegar) and honey (or sugar); simmer, until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.

2. Place a skillet over medium heat with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Saute the onion and garlic for about 5 minutes, until soft and just browning. Stir in the tomato paste, a splash of wine, parsley, and 1/2 cup of the prepared sweet and sour tomato sauce; mix to incorporate and then take it off the heat. Add the ground beef, egg, cooked rice, and raisins to this sauteed onion mixture in either the pan or a large bowl. Combine well (using your hands works best); season with a generous amount of salt and pepper.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Peel any cabbage leaves off of the head that will come off easily. Blanch the remaining head for 3 to 4 minutes and remove to a colander. Blanch the individual leaves for 1 to 2 minutes and remove from the water to a colander. Peel off 15 or 16 leaves.

4. Oil an ovenproof baking dish large enough to hold the cabbage snugly.

5. Place one leaf on the counter, stem end toward you. Trim the tough center rib at the stem end, as far up as it seems tough.

6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

7. Put about 1/4-1/3 cup of filling in the bottom of each leaf, fold ½ inch from each side over the center, and roll up (like a burrito), then place the packet seam side down in a baking dish on top of the sauce. Continue until all the filling is used up. Remaining cabbage can be reserved for another use or chopped and tucked into the sides of the baking dish if desired. Pour the remaining sweet and sour sauce on top and around the cabbage rolls. Cover tightly with foil.

8. Bake for 1 hour until the meat is cooked.

Per serving: 493 calories, 43 grams protein, 46 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams sugar, 15 grams fat, 132 milligrams cholesterol, 426 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.

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