I’m not gonna lie, stuffed cabbage is a little bit labor intensive. You’ve got to blanch the cabbage, separating the leaves as they become pliable and loosen. The filling is sautéed and mixed up separately. Each leaf gets a little scoop of filling, and then you hand roll each one before placing it the cooking vessel. If you’re quick, it’ll take you about 45 minutes of work before the whole thing even goes into the oven.
Whoops. Did I just convince you not to make this recipe? I hope not! It’s a delicious Eastern European specialty, and you should try putting a batch together at least once in your life. Especially if, like me, you love the convenience of having vegetables, starch, and protein all in one dish. It’s a great weekend project, and little kitchen helpers can certainly pitch in when it comes to rolling up the cabbage leaves. The combination of brightly flavored tomato sauce, tender cabbage leaves, and hearty filling make the effort worthwhile. The leftovers reheat very well too, if you have any.
Simple ingredients = a simplified recipe
As usual, I’ve gone and healthied things up a bit from the usual recipes. Rather than make a sugary sweet and sour sauce (or heaven forbid, use canned tomato soup), the tomato sauce here is simply crushed tomatoes, straight out of the jar. I use the version from Muir Glen, which is packed in glass jars. The flavor is very bright and purely tomato-y, with none of that tinny taste you can get from tomatoes in a can. Pomi strained tomatoes (the ones in the tetra packs) are also very good. If you start with a high quality tomato product, there’s no need to gussy it up with extra ingredients before spooning it over the cabbage. The sauce will take on some flavor from the cabbage rolls themselves, getting even better as it sits.
Making the filling
The beef filling is very simple as well. It’s just a mixture of sautéed onions, ground beef, and cooked rice. I had a leftover cup or so of cooked long grain white rice, so that’s what went into the mix this time around. It’s also great with cooked buckwheat, quinoa, farro, or any other grain. You can also use some chopped up cauliflower, mushrooms, or zucchini instead for a grain-free version– just sauté the extra vegetables with the onions before mixing them into the ground beef.
Separating the cabbage leaves
The most challenging bit of this recipe is separating the leaves from the cabbage. It’s not that hard, but you will need a sturdy pair of tongs (these are my favorite) for dunking the cabbage in hot water, then fishing it out again as the outer leaves soften and loosen from the head. To start, boil up a big pot of water, making sure it’s not so full that it’ll spill over when you put in the cabbage. Use a big chef’s knife to cut the tough core out of the base of the cabbage, then lower the whole head into the boiling water. After a couple minutes, take it out of the water and put it on a cutting board or plate. When it’s cool enough to handle (I’ve got asbestos fingers, so I hardly wait at all), gently pry the outer leaves loose from the cabbage, starting at the base. After that, it’s just dunk, peel, repeat. Soon you’ll have a pile of separated cabbage leaves, ranging from big to small. I like to cut the largest leaves in half, removing the tougher part of the center vein. As for the medium-sized and smaller leaves, I just roll those up whole.
Put it in the oven and walk away.
Some recipes call for simmering on the stovetop, but I like the put-in-the-oven-and-walk-away convenience of using a baking dish instead. I ladle a little bit of tomato sauce into a 9-inch square baking dish, then layer the rolls into the dish as I make them. They’re rolled exactly like egg rolls or burritos, with the sides tucked in, and a medium-sized cabbage yields enough rolls to fill the dish in two layers. Before baking the rolls, I spoon some more tomato sauce over the top, cover tightly with foil (if your dish has a lid, use that instead. After an hour in the oven, the cabbage is tender and sweet and the filling is cooked through.
Dinner is served!
Serve the cabbage rolls on their own for an easy dinner, or toss up a green salad to serve alongside if you’re feeling a little more ambitious. If you’ve got big appetites at the table, a pot of steamed rice would be a good addition as well. Most of all, enjoy!
- 1 medium (2-pound) green cabbage
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 egg
- 1 cup cooked rice or other grain
- 1½ cups crushed or strained tomatoes (Muir Glen or Pomi brand)
- Cut out the center core of the cabbage, leaving the cabbage whole.
- Fill a large (6-quart) pot of water four inches from the top. Bring to a boil over high heat.
- Use a tongs to submerge the cabbage in the boiling water and blanch it for about three minutes, allowing the outer leaves to soften. Remove the cabbage from the water. Use the tongs and your fingers to remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and put them aside on a plate to cool. Return the head of cabbage to the water, repeating this process until you have peeled off all of the softened, pliable cabbage leaves.
- Heat the oil in a medium (10-inch) skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and salt, then sauté for 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent and softened but not quite beginning to brown. Transfer the onions to a medium mixing bowl and allow to cool to room temperature. When the onions have cooled, stir in the pepper, ground beef, egg, and cooked rice until thoroughly combined.
- Ladle ½-cup of the tomato sauce into a 9-inch square baking dish and spread it out evenly.
- When rolling the cabbage leaves, cut the larger leaves in half down the center, removing the thick center vein. Smaller leaves can be left whole. Scoop three tablespoons of filling onto the bottom third of each leaf, then tuck in the sides and roll it up like a burrito or egg roll. Place each roll seam side down in the baking dish as you go, making two layers of rolls to fill up the dish. When you have rolled all of the leaves, spoon the remaining cup of crushed tomatoes over the top. Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil.
- Bake for one hour, then allow to cool for 15 minutes before serving.
You can also enrich the tomato sauce if you like, by adding sautéed onions. Some versions feature a sweet-and-sour sauce, seasoned with vinegar and sugar.
For a vegetarian variation, increase the cooked rice to 2½ cups and substitute a pound of mushrooms for the ground beef. Sauté the mushrooms with the onions, making sure all of the liquid has evaporated before stirring up the filling mixture.