My 8-year old self would have scoffed at my twenty-something self if she knew I made a dish centered around cabbage. I would then explain, over her laughter, how I actually liked it, and that she’d be amazed at the slew of things she would one day enjoy. The leafy, bitter vegetable falls under the heading of “Things I Would Have Never Eaten as a Child,” with brussel sprouts, kiwi, and seafood. If the 8-year old me thought it was ridiculous that she would one day like the taste of cabbage, she would be speechless at the thought of devouring a sushi roll.
My library of cookbooks includes a giant compilation of Cook’s Illustrated dishes, separated into chapters by the regional cuisine they represent. This has made it especially easy for my recent appreciation for Eastern European dishes, and this section of the book includes a pierogi recipe (similar to the one I just tried), beef goulash, and blintzes. The stuffed cabbage recipe was impossible to pass over: reading the description for Stuffed Cabbage with Sweet and Sour Tomato Sauce made me salivate to the point where I had no choice but to satisfy the craving I had just created.
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls with Sweet and Sour Tomato Sauce
1 medium head, green cabbage (about 2 lbs.), cored
¼ cup, long –grain white rice
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
8 whole cloves
1 ½ lbs., meatloaf mix
½ cup, heavy cream
2 Tbsp., minced parsley
Ground black pepper
3 (14.5 oz.) cans, diced tomatoes
1 cup, water
3 Tbsp, light brown sugar, plus extra to taste
3 Tbsp., cider vinegar
Bring about 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add cored cabbage and cook about 5 minutes, until outer leaves wilt. Using tongs, gently remove each leaf, one at a time, and place in colander to fully cool and drain. Keep water boiling and add rice, cooking about 13 minutes until tender. Drain in a fine strainer and cool. Stud one half of the onion with cloves and set to the side; grate remaining half over large box grater into a bowl and add rice, meat, cream, parsley and pepper, then combine. Trim the thick center rib from the cabbage leaves and place about 2 tablespoons of meat filling in center of leaf. Fold left and right sides of leaf over filling then roll leaf tightly from the bottom up. Shred extra cabbage leaves and place half in the bottom of a Dutch oven or heavy pot; line cabbage rolls over shredded cabbage, and top with remaining half of the shredded leftover leaves (I created two levels of cabbage rolls). Process two cans of tomatoes in a food processor until smooth. Mix in a large bowl with other can, water, brown sugar and vinegar. Pour mixture over rolls, then nestle studded onion, clove side down, into the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, uncovered, and cook for about 45 minutes. Discard onion half and transfer rolls to a plate or serving dish. Spoon sauce over rolls.
For a recipe that includes several seemingly tedious and complicated steps, this was pretty unproblematic to create, yet time consuming. Most recipes I encounter allow the cook to move onto another step while a portion of the dish is cooking, but this recipe has many steps that rely on the one before it to be completed. For example, the cabbage has to be cooked and disassembled before you can cook the rice, and your rice needs to be cooked in order for it to be added to the meat filling. Still, the finished product produces about 18 – 20 rolls, and is easy to serve as leftovers, re-heated in a casserole dish.
After first reading the recipe, I envisioned tightly rolled leaves of cabbage, stuffed with a meaty filling, drowning in a smooth, yet thick, tangy tomato sauce. The liquid was almost soup-like, probably due to pureeing the diced tomatoes already packed in juices. Had I used cans of tomato sauce, found adjacent to the diced tomatoes, the mixture probably would have been less watery. Though the vinegar and brown sugar are tough enough to flavor the sauce, the most obvious and enjoyable kick came from the clove studded onion, referred to in cooking as oignion pique. Even after removing the accessorized onion from the cooked tomato mixture, the aromatic effect of the cloves still pumps up the sauce. The cabbage leaves cook further and soften more as they simmer in the tomato concoction and the meat and rice mixture inside the rolls is so tasty I would consider making it into burger patties.
Next time I prepare this dish, I will make the necessary adjustments to improve the sauce to my liking; though the texture of the sauce was disappointing, the flavors were not. Even though this dish is not practical when cooking for two, as I often do, the dish is even better the second time around when re-heated; this was my saving grace, as we ate stuffed cabbage rolls several days in a row. Now that I’ve satisfied my craving for Eastern European flavors, I can move onto another part of the world using my international recipe collection, courtesy of Cook’s Illustrated.