Rice & Meat Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (The Daring Cooks December '12: Cabbage Rolls)

Yes, I know the 14th was last week; but I am finally here with this month's Daring Cook's challenge.

May we call it fashionably late and call it a day?

I found it rather fortuitous that this month's Daring Cook's challenge involved cabbage. I had one lone head of it leftover from my CSA share and I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do with - I just knew that Thanksgiving was coming and I needed to clear it out to make room for all the other stuff.

Funny how things come together sometimes....

Cabbage rolls are one of those things that The Dude loves but I can never seem to muster up enough enthusiasm to pull together. He has very specific ideas on how they should be prepared and since I am the kind of person who can't follow a recipe - well, you can see the proverbial writing on that wall.

Having this come up as a Daring Cook's challenge was just the motivation I needed to get me past that mental roadblock and into the kitchen to give these a try. I had an idea of the flavors I wanted, but needed to give it a gut check against a similar recipe to make sure I was on the right path.

Since I wanted this to be relatively simple, I rummage through a couple of my Mark Bittman cookbooks looking for inspiration. Fortunately, his The Best Recipes in the World had a Middle Eastern recipe for Stuffed Cabbage Leaves. The flavor profile was a little different than I was looking for and his method for finishing the rolls was a little different than I wanted - but in the end, I was able to mesh my thoughts with his technique and get it done!

We went with a traditional red sauce this time around, but I still have a couple of bags filled with this in the freezer and plan to play around with different finishing techniques next time around.

Peace out.

Rice & Meat Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
Very loosely adapted from Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World

For the filling
3 cups rice, cooked (I prefer a medium or short grain rice, but use what you like)
Extra virgin olive oil, for the pan
1 lb bulk sweet Italian sausage
1 medium yellow onion, medium dice (~1 cup)
1/3 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated
3 Tbs fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 ½ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 14-oz can crushed tomatoes

For the cabbage rolls
1 recipe filling mix (above)
1 medium head cabbage
Extra virgin olive oil, for the pan
1 medium onion, chopped
1 28 ounce can tomato sauce or 1 -28 ounce can whole tomatoes in their juice (tomatoes crushed)
1 Tbs brown sugar
1/3 cup red wine (I use whatever I have open – Cabernet, Malbec, etc)
1 -2 tsp kosher salt (to taste)
½ tsp red pepper flakes
Parsley, to garnish

To make the filling - heat olive oil over medium-high in a large sauté pan. Once pan is heated, add the bulk sausage – breaking up with a spatula until the meat is crumbled. Once meat has browned, remove from pan and allow to drain on a plate lined with a couple of paper towels. Set aside until ready to use. Drain most of the fat pan from the pan and return the pan to medium-high heat. If the pan is dry, add another Tbs of olive oil. Add the onion to the pan and sauté until it just starts to turn golden (~5-7 minutes). Transfer the onion to a large mixing bowl.

Add to the onion, the rice, the cooked sausage, the parsley, salt and pepper. Mix until well combined. Stir in the crushed tomatoes. Can be made ahead –refrigerate until ready to use.

To make the cabbage rolls – Fill a large pot (5 quarts or larger) with water and bring to a boil. When the water is near boiling, add 1 Tbs salt. Use a thin, sharp knife to cut around the core of the cabbage – remove a good portion of the upper half of the core, but don’t take out the whole thing (you still want the cabbage to somewhat hold together). Have ready a large bowl filled with ice water.

Submerge the cabbage in the boiling water and boil until the outer leaves become tender (5-7 minutes). When the outer leaves are tender, cut them free and submerge them in the ice bath. If you are dexterous (and not accident prone), you can do this while the remainder of the cabbage is still in the water. If you are more accident prone (raises hand), you may want to use a set up rubber gripped tongs to transfer the head of cabbage to a rimmed baking sheet lined with a clean towel to remove the leaves.

Return the head of cabbage to the boiling water and repeat the boiling/ shocking process until you have removed all but the smallest of leaves from the cabbage head (save those small leaves for a pot of soup or something…). Using a small knife, cut the rigid core piece from the bottom of the cabbage leaves (if left in, the core will keep the leaves from rolling nicely).

Place one leaf (curved side up) on a clean surface. Place 3-4 Tbs of filling in the center of each leaf – towards the end where the stem was trimmed. Fold the side of the leaf in toward the center and then roll the leaf up into a bundle – you can use a toothpick to hold the ends together. Be careful not to over fill them or roll too tightly – or the filling will leak out during cooking.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Lightly butter a 9” x 13” pan, set aside.

To prepare the sauce, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. When the pan is heated, add the onion and sauté until the onions start to color (~5 minutes). Stir in the tomato sauce (or crushed whole tomatoes + juices, brown sugar, red wine, salt and red pepper. Bring to a simmer and let simmer for about 10 minutes.

Arrange the prepared cabbage rolls in the bottom of the prepared pan. Pour the sauce evenly over the rolls. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the foil from the pan and bake another 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest ~10 minutes before serving. Garnish with parsley if desired.

The un-sauced cabbage rolls freeze very well (set them in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in the freezer. Once they are frozen, transfer to a zip-lock bag and keep in the freezer until ready to use. They can be baked fresh from the freezer – just add ~15 minutes to the covered baking time).

This post participates in the Daring Cooks. November’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge had us on a roll! Olga from Effortnesslessly challenged us to make stuffed cabbage rolls using her Ukrainian heritage to inspire us. Filled with meat, fish or vegetables, flexibility and creativity were the name of the game to get us rolling! You can see the full post here, which includes all the amazing variations provided by Olga.


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