The French? The Polish? Your Jewish grandmother? Who can claim the stuffed cabbage roll as their own? Trick question! All of the above and more (or make it your own).
My Polish grandmother had close to a dozen recipes for stuffed cabbage rolls. Most of these involved a ground meat, some rice and maybe some tomato sauce. What she knew was that even with simple ingredients, not all cabbage rolls taste the same and can be made new, time after time It’s a good way to keep those, “oh… that again?” questions at bay.
I’ve made many my grandmother’s versions, and others as well. Trying lots of ways with any dish is one process to find your own way. One of my favorites leans French. It’s all in the spices… “French 4-spice” to be exact. This is something you can make yourself. It’s just 2 parts freshly ground black or white pepper, 1 part each freshly ground cloves, nutmeg and ginger. It’s a potent mix! Tip: Make a large batch and store it in an air tight container for up to several months.
I like to use fresh (not dried) bread crumbs instead of rice. Soaking the bread crumbs in milk adds a good amount of moisture and binds the other ingredients together. Rice isn’t a great binder and it’s an added step you’d have to make. Skip the rice. Go the fresh breadcrumb route and save yourself some time.
I’ve labeled this dish as intermediate-advanced. “What?! My mom/grandmother makes these all the time and…” Yes, well, your mom/grandmother is a good and experienced cook! Fear not, it’s really not difficult. All the steps are quite simple. But there are a few separate components to do or make, and neatly pulling leaves off a cabbage head can be tricky. This is good “patience practice” for me, an ingredient I don’t have much of in my pantry!
What to do with your cabbage rolls? See the last process step in the recipe, below, for suggestions for enjoying the cabbage rolls steamed and served in broth or baking them with a tomato sauce. Each is good and points to a different culture. How will you make yours?
The Multi-Cultural, Versatile Cabbage Roll
- 1 large cabbage head (Savoy and Napa work well)
- 1 pound (16 oz) mild sausage (or ground turkey, lamb, beef)
- 1 large yellow or white onion, finely diced
- 1 cup fresh bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon “French Four spice” (Make your own: 2 parts freshly ground black or white pepper, 1 part each ground clove, nutmeg and ginger)
- 1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon kosher (not table) salt, divided
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
- A few sprigs of thyme or fresh oregano (optional)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Bring a large wide pot of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon of kosher salt
- Core the cabbage head and gently peel each leaf off, keeping the leaves intact. This is challenging and can be frustrating, I’m not going to lie. Do as many as you can. If the leaves spit they may be repaired later. Some cabbages heads are tighter than others. When you get toward the center, finely shred the rest and save it for the sausage mixture
- Prepare an ice bath (water and ice) in a large shallow bowl
- Gently place each cabbage leaf into the boiling water and press with a spoon to submerge. Boil for 3-4 minutes
- Remove cabbage leaves and place into the ice bath
- In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil on medium heat
- Crumble and brown the sausage. Drain any excess fat. Remove the sausage to a plate when just cooked through (when it loses all pinkness)
- In a shallow bowl, pour milk over bread crumbs
- In the same sauté pan, sauté onions, shredded cabbage, garlic, salt, French 4-spice mix until onions are translucent (about 7 minutes). If it sticks to the bottom of the pan, pour in a 1/4 cup water
- Add the bread crumbs and sausage to the onion mixture. Stir and heat through (about two minutes)
- Remove the cabbage leaves from the ice bath and pat dry. Cut out the thick portions of the cabbage ribs
- Stack a small cabbage leaf on top of a large one, covering the removed core. Place approximately 1/4 – 1/2 cup of the sausage mixture near one end of the cabbage leaves, leaving a couple inches as a flap. Fold the flap on the sausage. Then fold up the longer sides. Then roll the cabbage making a bundle. If you’re familiar with burritos, it’s the same process! (see bottom or recipe)
- You may have extra filling depending on the size of the cabbage and your success rate of removing the leaves. The filling is delicious all on its own.
- Once you have rolled all the cabbage leaves you have choices. Here are options: Steam them seam side down for 25 minutes in vegetable or chicken broth and serve in broth. As you cut into the cabbage roll, it will break apart and become a soup. (see my simple broth recipe at the bottom my White Fish Dumpling recipe). Or, bake them in tomato sauce (see my recipe for simple pantry tomato sauce). If using the tomato sauce, preheat the oven to 350F (177C). In a baking dish, spread a thin base of tomato sauce that the bottom. Place the cabbage roles tightly together, seam side down in the baking dish. Generously pour additional tomato sauce over the rolls. Cover and bake for 35 minutes