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