It is always an astonishment to me when I make stuffed whatever (cabbage, grape leaves, dumplings of various sorts…) and the stuffing and wrappers come out even. More often than not I have leftovers of one or the other, but this time it worked out a treat.
Last week’s comments got me thinking about stuffed cabbage, and when I found myself trying to come up with something besides eggplant Parmesan (again? really?) to feed a crowd that included a gluten-free vegetarian, I came up with this idea.
Stuffed cabbage is a lengthy process, but you get so much of it and I love it so much that I think it is worth it. Its easiest if you break it down. Make the stuffing two days ahead and the final dish a day ahead, reheat it just before serving, and it seems simple.
The hardest part is getting the cabbage leaves to release their hold on each other. I was told years ago (I wish I could remember who told me) that this is the way, and it does seem to work fine for me. If you know a different simpler way I hope you’ll share!
Anyway, when your stuffing is chilled and ready, put a large deep pot of water on the stove and bring it to a simmer. Spear the stem end of the cabbage with a long-handled fork, and using the fork as a handle, cut the tough outside leaves off and put ’em in the compost. Then, with a short bladed very sharp knife, carefully cut the leaves (usually three at a time) that you can see attached to the stalk, right at the stalk, and submerge the head of cabbage in the simmering water still using the fork as a handle. With me so far?
This behavior will so astonish the cabbage that it will let go of its now outside leaves and they will float freely in the water. If your cabbage is recalcitrant, you should at least be able to tease the leaves apart gently. Then, using tongs, carefully remove the freed leaves to a bowl and let them sit. Remove the cabbage to different empty bowl, cut the next group of leaves at the stalk and submerge it again. Eventually you will end up with a well-shorn cabbage stem, a bowl of separated leaves of various sizes, and a simmering pot of water.
Put the leaves back in the water, three or four leaves of similar sizes at a time, and simmer for 3-5 minutes. Larger leaves take longer. Remove them (again, carefully) from the hot water, set them aside until you can touch them, then stuff and roll.
Whew! The telling took longer than the doing, I think. Anyway, that’s my system.
As to the stuffing, use any recipe you like. I usually do a beef and rice traditional kind of thing, but since I wanted to feed everyone in one sitting and I wanted it to be easy, I went with a vegetarian stuffing.
Here’s what I did:
Vegetarian/Vegan Cabbage Stuffing
olive oil for sauteéing
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
1 tsp smoked paprika
8 oz button mushrooms, cleaned, stems and caps chopped separately
2 zucchini, shredded
1/2 C currants
juice and zest of one lemon
salt and pepper
1 C Arborio rice
2-3 C hot water or vegetable stock
3 cups tomato sauce (home made or canned, or fire-roasted diced tomatoes, or spaghetti sauce…)
Day one: In a large skillet, saute the chopped onion and mushroom stems until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic, chopped mushroom caps, smoked paprika and shredded zucchini. Stir well and cook for 5 minutes or so. Add the currents and lemon zest and juice, stir well, check for salt and pepper, add as needed. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a large heavy pot, put about 3 T olive oil. Heat to almost sizzling and add the Arborio rice. This will end up as a sort of risotto and will help bind the stuffing nicely. Stir the rice in the hot oil until it barely begins to think about browning (watch it carefully – the color can change fast!), then add 1 cup of the hot water or stock. It should now be simmering.
Stir it well until the liquid is almost completely absorbed, repeat with the 2nd cup of liquid. At this point the rice will be starting to get creamy but will still be quite al dente. When the second cup of liquid is well-absorbed, remove the pot from heat, add the vegetable component of the stuffing to the rice and stir well to incorporate. Check again for salt/pepper and add if needed.
Chill the stuffing, covered, in the fridge overnight. It will stiffen up and come together, although the rice will still not be completely cooked through.
Day two: Oil (olive oil) an oven-safe ceramic or enameled casserole. Put a good spoonful of the tomato sauce in the bottom of the casserole. Prepare the cabbage leaves as above, fill with stuffing and roll up, tucking in the sides on the way like a burrito or blintz. This part is great to do with kids as long as the cooked cabbage leaves are cooled a bit.
Do not over-stuff or roll too tightly as the rice will expand a bit as it finishes cooking.
Tuck the cabbage rolls “seam”-side down, fill the casserole, cover with remaining tomato sauce, cover tightly with foil and bake at 325 for two hours. At this point you can serve it, or you can put it in the fridge and reheat the next day, which I think tastes even better. And, you’ll enjoy your guests even more if you’re well rested, right?
This amount (one medium head of cabbage and stuffing as above) will feed 6 with a nice side salad and good conversation. Enjoy!