Monday, January 1, 2018

Hungarian roots, part 4: Cabbage rolls

Many of the recipes and preparations that are staples on the Hungarian table are found in the local cuisines throughout eastern Europe and even into parts of Asia. The simple cabbage roll might be one of the most iconic foods that cuts across cultural lines. The cabbage roll itself, little bundles of meat and rice rolled in a softened cabbage leaf, is the blank canvas on which native cultures use their indigenous flavors to paint a portrait of their lives. In northern Europe where the climate is colder and the growing season shorter, its not uncommon to find this dish with a sour cream based sauce and caraway seeds in the filling. As it travels south to warmer climates, its more commonly prepared with a tomato based sauce and fresh herbs or greens in the filling. I've had Bulgarian cabbage rolls that had warn spices like cinnamon and cloves in the filling. A colleague of mine who is of Croatian heritage brought me a sample of his mom's cabbage rolls and she softens the cabbage by souring it in a vinegar based brine and then cooks the rolls in sauerkraut.  The variations are seemingly endless.

The flavors I was raised by my Romanian relatives to appreciate have a unique combinations of sweet and savory that is reminiscent of Turkish cooking. I make these cabbage rolls exactly as my mother did because in my humble opinion, they need no improvement. If I was stranded on a desert island for five years, this would be the first hot meal I would request after being rescued.


1 large head of green cabbage
2 lbs of 85/15 ground beef
1/2 cup of raw, long grain rice
2 large eggs
1 small onion
1/4 cup water
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 tsp paprika
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
lemon zest

For the sauce:
1 28 oz. can tomato sauce
2 large lemons
2 tbsp light brown sugar

There are three parts to this dish - cabbage, filling and sauce - none of which are terribly difficult to make. The cabbage needs to be softened so it is pliable and easy to roll and the best way to do that is to blanch it in boiling water. The sauce is just three ingredients, mixed together in the bottom of a deep casserole dish. The filling gets rolled up into cabbage leaves, nestled into the sauce and baked at 350 degrees for an hour. Good preparation will make each step go faster.

Start by preheating your oven and putting a stock pot filled with water over medium high heat. While you are waiting for the water to boil, get your sauce ready. Add the can of tomato sauce to the bottom of your casserole dish. You will be using lemon juice in the sauce, but you need the lemon zest for the filling. Zest both lemons into a large mixing bowl, then juice them into the tomato sauce. Finally, add the brown sugar, stir it all together and set it aside.

To prep the cabbage, slice off the bottom of the core as close to the leaves as possible. Using a small parking knife, begin to cut the leaves away from the thick core. If the head of cabbage is lose enough, you can try gently removing the leaves as you loosen them from the core, but that is often more challenging than it seems. I usually just put the entire head of cabbage into the boiling water and as it softens, I remove the leaves and let them steep briefly before shocking them in a bowl of ice water.

While your cabbage is blanching, you can get started on the filling. Dice the onion very finely and saute it along with the spices in a skillet over medium heat. When the onions are translucent, add the chopped garlic and saute just until fragrant. Add the onions to the bowl with the lemon zest, then add the rice, water and raisins and let that sit for a few minutes while you tend to your cabbage. Don't let the cabbage overcook! You want it to retain enough of its structure to stay wrapped around the filling and not fall apart while its baking. As the cabbage leaves soften, remove them from the pot and plunge them into a big bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, then place them on a towel to drain.

Finally, add the eggs to the rice and onion mixture and beat them slightly before adding the meat. Mix everything thoroughly, the best tool for this is your hands, and add a final bit of salt and pepper to make sure your filling is flavorful. Its a somewhat sticky and wet filling, but the rice will absorb the extra moisture and will bind the ingredients together. Now its time to rock & roll!

If you have some partial cabbage leaves, especially the dark outer leaves, lay them over the top of the sauce and line the bottom of the casserole so the rolls don't stick. If you've ever rolled a burrito or an eggroll, you'll be able to make a cabbage roll with ease. Cut the core out of the middle of the cabbage leaf in a v-shape. Then grab a small handful of filling, about a third of a cup, and roll it into a log. Place the filling just above the point of the v-shape and bring the bottom flaps of the cabbage leaf up around the filling. Fold the side of the cabbage leaf in, then roll the whole thing up and place it into
the casserole dish. When you fill the bottom of the dish, lay a few cabbage leaves over the bottom layer and starts a new layer on top. Keep going until you run out of filling, then shred what's left of the cabbage and sprinkle it over the top of the cabbage rolls.

Cover the casserole with a lid or foil and bake it for an hour. The sauce should be bubbling up around the edges and in between the cabbage rolls.
You absolutely MUST serve these cabbage rolls over mashed potatoes. You MUST. Okay, if you prefer mashed squash, that is a nice alternative, but that sauce needs a companion and mashed potatoes are the perfect match. This classic Hungarian cabbage role recipe takes me back to my childhood and I guarantee it will warm your soul on a cold winter day.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Honey!
    I decided to make some Cabbage Rolls and remembered your post. Thanks for the awesome instructions on how to blanch the cabbage! Of course I added a few things from two other recipes and am using the crockpot to cook it... my usual method of ADHD cooking!
    Abby, it’s so great to get to know you again after all these years and to hear that the bucket O’ bitches lives on! Hugs, Laura