Stuffed cabbage is a quintessential Sukkot meal that can bring back warm memories and is loved and appreciated by almost everyone. Many people have a favorite recipe that reminds them of their childhood. My grandmother made a sweet-and-sour version in a thin tomato sauce.
Stuffed cabbage is typically plated with two rolls per plate, which represent a Torah scroll — that’s why this is such a cute dish to serve on Sukkot or Simchat Torah. While it’s often thought of as an Eastern European or Ashkenazi dish, vegetables stuffed with ground beef and rice are common throughout the Balkans, Turkey and the Levant as well.
When I think of the foods that our grandparents ate, they are mostly very simple — they just need a bit of preparation and time to cook. Rice is mixed with meat and spices to make the dish go further, and in-season vegetables are abundant and affordable. This dish — an elevated meal for the holiday — can be made for less than $20.
Unstuffed cabbage has become all the rage because it has fewer steps, but it only takes 10 minutes to roll the cabbage leaves. A game-changing trick to prepare the cabbage is to freeze the head a day or two before you plan to cook. This removes the time-consuming step of blanching the cabbage leaves one by one in boiling water and ensures a pliable cabbage leaf for rolling.
Makes about 12-15 rolls
1 large head of cabbage, frozen whole
For the meat filling:
1½ pounds ground beef
½ cup of rice, pre-soaked in water
¼ cup finely diced or grated onion
3-4 minced garlic cloves
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
1½ teaspoons allspice
1½ teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons raisins (optional)
For the sauce:
3 cups tomato juice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 bay leaf
½ cup of water, if needed, to ensure that the tomato sauce covers the cabbage rolls.
A day or two before you cook, place your head of cabbage in the freezer. Take it from the freezer a good 6 hours before making your meat mixture.
Put the entire head into a medium-sized pot and cover it with cool water. This helps the cabbage thaw.
Cut the stem from the cabbage and carefully cut into the core, leaving a cone-shaped indent about 3 inches deep. Discard the outer two or three leaves of the cabbage, and gently peel each piece away, one by one. If you find that the cabbage is frozen in the middle, let it sit under cool running water until thawed completely. It is much easier to peel the cabbage this way than it is to peel raw cabbage, and avoids tears.
Wash each leaf to be sure that it’s free of any dirt or bugs.
Cabbage leaves are pliable and easy to work with. The only downside of freezing it is that the interior leaves can turn slightly brown, looking as though they were soaked in tea around the edges. That doesn’t matter in this dish because you will be covering the stuffed cabbage rolls in a tomato mixture and the color won’t show once they are cooked.
Freezing the cabbage leaves does leave the small interior leaves fairly useless once thawed. I use those small leaves or any torn leaves to line my baking dish. This can help keep the cabbage from browning on the bottom while it’s baked.
Once all of the leaves are separate and clean, take sharp kitchen shears and cut a small v-shaped indent into the stem of the cabbage. This removes the hardest part of the stem and makes for easier rolling.
Soak the rice in warm water for 15 minutes, then strain.
Add all ingredients of the meat mixture into a large bowl and mix by hand until well combined, being careful not to overmix.
Cabbage leaves are different sizes so you will need to adjust the amount of meat mixture depending on the size of the leaf. For the largest outside leaves, use about ¼ cup of meat per leaf. For the smaller leaves, use about 2 tablespoons of meat. Scoop the meat into the cabbage leaf, placing it in the middle near where the point of the “triangle” was removed by cutting the stem out. Fold one up and over on an angle, then the next size. Give it a half turn before folding the outside edges into the center, and then roll it up completely and as tightly as possible. Start with your largest leaves because they are the easiest to work with.
Place each cabbage roll seam-side down into a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.
This recipe makes about 12 to 15 rolls. If you’re left with extra filling, make some small meatballs to stuff between the rolled cabbage leaves.
If you want a little extra sweetness, tuck 2 to 4 raisins into the meat in each piece before rolling. The raisins will plump up when baked inside of the meat.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine and whisk together the ingredients for the sauce. Put the dish of rolls onto a large baking sheet, so if any sauce escapes your oven will stay clean. Pour the sauce over the cabbage, covering it completely but not to the point where the pan overflows. If you need extra liquid to cover the rolls, add up to ½ cup of water.
Cover tightly with foil and bake at 350 F for 1.5 hours.
Reduce the heat to 300 F and bake it for another hour. Low and slow is the rule for cabbage rolls. The rice soaks up about 90% of the sauce. If you have too much sauce, uncover and bake them for an additional 20 minutes, which is also the step to take if you want your rolls to be browned on the top.
Allow the rolls to rest covered for 10 minutes before serving.
It is not uncommon for a few rolls to look as though they are unraveling. As long as they were rolled tightly before baking, this can be easily fixed. Typically they only come apart at the bottom seam, and you can tuck the end nicely under the roll when plating.
The flavor improves as the cabbage rests, so this is a great meal to make a day ahead and warm in the oven before serving. You can add another cup of tomato juice when rewarming the cabbage rolls to keep them moist.
If you like an extra bit of lemony zing, serve it with lemon wedges to squeeze over the cabbage.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Wishing you happy cooking for a happy holiday! Bless your hands! PJC
Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.