Cabbage Rolls — Traditional and Deconstructed
What was I thinking?
On an evening while I was in the throes of illness — unsettled stomach, aching bones, feverish, delusional — I peeked into the fridge, saw cabbage and thought: Cabbage rolls. Then, considering my sorry state, I revised: Deconstructed cabbage rolls!
As an exercise in cooking, it was perfectly acceptable. As an exercise in feeding myself, I return to my original question.
I can’t think of a single time when I’ve tucked into a plate of cabbage rolls and said, “Yum!” To be fair, I have gotten over my suspicion with stew, and there was also a time when I regularly passed on pasta. But these cabbage rolls? I tried, mom, I really did, but I just couldn’t eat them.
So here was a dilemma. How exactly does one write a blog post about something that one couldn’t actually choke down? Was it a terrible recipe? Or was it just me?
Clearly I needed an intervention. From someone who cares deeply about a good cabbage roll. Someone like a Russian baba.
Meet Annie, a Sundre-based novelist with Russian roots and a Doukhobor upbringing, who is a fine — if occasionally flustered — maker of borshch, blintzes, pyrahi, cabbage rolls and other unspellable delicacies. Oh — and she’s also my mother-in-law.
Take it away, Annie.
Thanks for inviting me into your blog. The following is what I discovered while “rolling” (sorry!) through resources for cabbage roll recipes:
- That there are as many varied recipes for cabbage rolls as there are cookbooks.
- Yes, they can end up “deconstructed” and in the compost.
- They can look very elegant, but the taste?? I was offered, as a guest, a beautiful cabbage roll. It was naked — no sauce on it. After one bite, I edged my way toward the napkins and hoped there was a garbage can nearby.
- I probably should have kitchen-tested this recipe before posting it.
- These are my own observations, recipe, not to be taken as gospel.
I only make cabbage rolls if green cabbage is on sale, and the cabbage heads are kind of loose, not in a vise-grip, or if I have bought too much cabbage to make borshch and there’s lots left over.
Cabbage rolls are not a simple “let’s have cabbage rolls for dinner” meal. If one has to make them at all, then make a big batch for the freezer, or if you are going to feed a big crew right away.
They are not “native” to Doukhobor cooking. We call them holopsi. They are more a Ukrainian dish, pronounced “Golubtsi.” In a Doukhobor cookbook, there is a recipe for cabbage rolls, but, like all other recipes in the book, it is meatless. So having no tried and true, foolproof recipe for cabbage rolls, I have to improvise on this one that I found in the Practical Cook Book – Selected Doukhobor and Quaker Recipes. As you can see by the picture, it was printed circa 1957 and possibly went through the 2005 Sundre flood. Or suffered from sauce overflow.
My theory is that it’s not what is on the inside of the cabbage roll (rice, onion, sage, garlic, hamburger, egg, et cetera), so much as what you pour on the outside, and that’s the sauce. Without the sauce, it’s like that naked one I described earlier, destined to lie under a napkin.
But, not to despair. With a good head of cabbage, lots of time and hopefully this recipe is a good one, you can make some pretty rolls that taste good, too.
I hope this helps, but I don’t guarantee the results.
Martha Stewartoff, I am not.
All evidence of my disastrous deconstructed cabbage rolls
This is how Annie does it
- 1 head of cabbage, with loose leaves on the outside
- 2 cups of rice (I use white, long grain, not instant)
- 1 ½ quarts of tomatoes (about 6 cups), my own preserved, crushed in blender. Or use canned, put through blender. I don’t use canned crushed as there’s not enough liquid in them
- 4 medium white onions, chopped.
- ½ lb of butter (I only use ¼ as I don’t fry the onions)
- Salt, pepper to taste
- 1 lb lean hamburger meat
- 1 egg, beaten
- ½ tsp sage
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp sugar
- seasoning salt
- 2 small tins of tomato paste
Into a large pot, set the whole head of cabbage, then pour boiling water over to cover it and let it sit in the pot long enough so that you can start to peel the leaves off the head. Let cool.
Meanwhile, cook the 2 cups of rice. Let cool.
In another pot, add the ¼ lb of butter, half of the chopped onions, tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar, and let simmer for about 30 minutes, until thickened. This, I think, makes for a nice sauce.
When rice has cooled, add the raw hamburger, the rest of the chopped onions, chopped garlic, sage, seasonings, egg, salt and pepper. Mix well.
Now you should be able to peel leaves off the cabbage. (This is the part where I, along with the cabbage leaves, start to fall apart.) Peel off enough leaves to make 12 to 16 cabbage rolls.
Spread the cabbage leaves on your cutting board and fill each leaf with a ‘medium egg sized scoop’ of the hamburger/rice mixture. Tuck in the ends of the cabbage leaf (they recommend “envelope style”) then roll into a nice, elegant-looking cabbage roll.
Sadly, mine often end up falling apart and look nothing like elegant envelope style.
Into the bottom of the casserole or baking dish you intend to use, cover the bottom with enough of the sauce mixture just to cover, then place the cabbage rolls on top. Pour the rest of the sauce over the rolls. Take a few empty cabbage leaves and place on top of the rolls to prevent any burning.
Bake at 350 for an hour, then turn down the heat to 275 for another half hour or until there’s no pink in the hamburger/rice mixture.
If you are interested in trying the Deconstructed (Unstuffed) Cabbage Rolls that I originally made, the link for that recipe is here. As best as I can tell, the real advantage of unstuffed over stuffed cabbage rolls is the investment of time.
But really. This is a recipe that relies on some very humble ingredients. Putting a little effort into it might just be the way to go.
Maybe I will even give them another shot.
Curious about my “Kitchen Castoffs” concept? Here’s the explainer describing my 100-day project.
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