Throughout my adolescence, my mother frequently remarked - "You'll never get a husband if you can't make cabbage rolls." [Jump to Recipe]
There's a lot to unpack in that one. It was the 60s, and though Betty Friedan had not even published the Feminine Mystique, the feminism drums were beating. Nonetheless, getting one's M.R.S. was still, at least in my family, the main life goal for a young woman. My mother was a solid cook, but there was no evidence that culinary expertise had helped her bag her man. I could never figure out that frequent exhortation, and that kind of remark almost ensured that I was not enamoured by the prospect of being barefoot in the kitchen. I did marry without kitchen credentials and elsewhere have referred to my early cooking repertoire of fried Spam and canned yams, and 101 ways to cook hamburger.
I did buckle to pressure to help make the cabbage rolls. I have a "muscle memory" of what it was like to stuff the cabbage leaves, but I never paid attention to the big picture. In my own handwriting from the 1980s, I recorded my mother's recipe, but in hindsight it is confusing and now I have found that she can't remember details enough to offer clarification. So off I went on another cooking research project - with help from the internet and my trusty FBC blogger friends.
You will not be surprised to learn there are tons of variations on cabbage rolls - influenced by family and culture. Most recipes for Hungarian Cabbage Rolls use a tomato sauce, though oddly, the Hamilton Hungarian Community's annual cabbage roll sale offers up a version that is more "paprikash" - and just at the moment I don't have a recipe for that. This recipe does a pretty good job of replicating my mother's / grandmother's version of cabbage rolls. My brother's given it a thumbs up - whew!
Here's the Recipe!
I call making these a project. The recipe makes a lot - at least 3 dozen, maybe more depending upon the size of the cabbage leaves / rolls. It can make for several hours in the kitchen, but you can freeze the rolls and enjoy for weeks / months after. Obviously, cut the recipe in half if you wish.
Because I use the freezer method to soften the cabbage leaves, start two days before by putting the cabbages into the freezer (inside a freezer bag). There are tips and issues and options - outlined in Notes, below - but the basic recipe follows. (Tip: Sigh... you may want to read the Notes first.)
Ingredient Note - it may not be obvious as you scan the ingredients, but by the time all is said and done, you'll be needing about 4 cups of tomato sauce and 4 cups of tomato juice, 2-4 cups of chicken broth, and I also use 2-4 pieces of Hungarian smoked sausage (Csabai or Debreceni kolbász)
2 medium-large heads of cabbage
It all starts with preparing the cabbage. The goal is to get a nice pile of pliable cabbage leaves in sizes appropriate for one roll - in other words a cabbage leaf that is roughly the size of your cupped hand, with about two tablespoons of filling for each.
For your little assembly line to work, you want to be standing next to a bunch of cabbage leaves and the filling. So... how to prep the cabbage leaves? As outlined in Notes below (and after some trial and dissatisfaction) the best way to prep the cabbage is to freeze it ahead of time. Place them in the freezer (in a freezer bag) two days before; the evening before project day, remove them from the freezer. It's fine to leave it out on the counter overnight in a rimmed tray to catch the liquid. You'll need to make some cuts next to the core to help you remove individual leaves. (Or do the cuts before you put them in the freezer.) Trim the spines on all leaves that have a thick unpliable spine. Cut the larger outer leaves in half. Pile up all the leaves in a bowl ready to be filled / rolled. Since they may be a bit wet, the rolling stage can be done on a tea towel.
3 cups long-grain rice
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 TB oil or lard or bacon fat
My family always used Uncle Ben's Long Grain rice. The rice is not cooked ahead of time. I rinse the rice and leave it covered in warm water while preparing the rest of the filling. The rice may absorb a bit of the water. Drain it before adding it to the meat mixture.
Peel the onions, cut them into chunks and pulse them in a food processor until they resemble a fine chop.
Heat whatever fat you are using (see Notes) over medium-high heat, in a large fry-pan and cook the onion until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat.
1 cup tomato sauce (see Notes)
2 TB Hungarian paprika (sweet, not hot - details)
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3-4 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1.5 lbs ground pork
1.5 lbs ground beef
1 cup tomato juice
Drain the rice in readiness for this step.
Add the spices to the tomato sauce and give it a quick whisk to evenly distribute. (For the record, I will note that my family did not add nutmeg, but many cooks among Mr. KB's relatives in Hungary swear by the addition of nutmeg to almost anything.)
Begin to mix the two meats, and then add the tomato sauce mixture, until it is somewhat evenly distributed.
Mix the drained rice with the onion garlic mixture (from the previous step) until all the rice is coated. Then add the rice and the tomato juice to the meat mixture. (See Notes about tomato juice.)
You can use a wooden spoon or spatula, but hands are the best mixers.
Ready to Roll. Make all the rolls, placing them seam-side down somewhere until you sort them into containers for cooking or freezing. If the cabbage leaves are a bit wet, do the rolling on a tea towel. I have muscle memory of doing this. Cabbage leaf in hand, add about 2 heaping tablespoons to the leaf (or a slightly smaller amount if it is a small cabbage leaf). Begin to roll the leaf to cover the filling; fold in one side of the leaf, continue to roll and then use your finger to tuck in the other side. Your technique may not matter - but that's how we did it. (A quick peek at videos and I see some people who do a simple roll and then finger-tuck both ends, others fold in both sides and roll - do what works for you.) The exception is the large outer leaves that are cut in half. Even though the spine was trimmed, it may still be too stiff to fold over or tuck in. In that case you simply make a roll shaped like a cone. (see photo below)
Containers and Cooking Prep. My family preferred to cook cabbage rolls stove-top in a sort of Dutch oven. With a bit of the finely sliced left-over cabbage on the bottom along with some tomato sauce/juice, the rolls were layered into the pot and mostly covered by more tomato sauce / juice. My mother was able to tell me that they preferred this because it was faster than cooking them in the oven, but I have time and opted for the oven, thus leaving my stove-top uncluttered. I placed my cabbage rolls into roasting type pans (foil also works) in quantities that work for us - about 12-16 per pan. I spread some of the finely sliced left-over cabbage on the bottom along with some tomato sauce/juice and placed one layer of rolls over top. My own addition was to place chunks of Hungarian smoked sausage (Csabai or Debreceni kolbász) in between the rolls. More of the finely sliced cabbage can be spread on top. Pour over a mixture of 1 cup tomato sauce, 1 cup tomato juice, and 1 cup water or chicken stock. The rolls will not be totally covered. Cover this tightly with foil and freeze or bake (the same day or next).
Bake on the middle rack in a 350 F oven for 2 to 2.5 hours. Take a peek at the 1 hour mark to see if more liquid is needed - adding more tomato juice if necessary to keep the rolls moist. Check at 2 hours if the rice is done, and if not return the pan to the oven for another 30 minutes. (Frozen trays of cabbage rolls can be cooked the same way if thawed first, or a bit longer if baked from frozen.)
Notes and Tips...
- Cabbage: What kind - we use regular cabbage, though some cultures and even some Hungarians use savoy cabbage.
- Cabbage: how large - aim to purchase medium / medium large. The outer leaves will be too large on their own, so they'll be cut in half (after trimming down the tough spine). As you get closer to the core, the leaves will be just perfect, and/but nearer the core they become too small. You might think that smaller cabbages are better suited, but what happens is that only the few outer layers are the right size and as you get closer to the core, the leaves quickly become way too small. Cabbage from the core that is too small can be finely sliced and used to cover the rolls while cooking - and of course eaten along with the cabbage rolls. (P.S. One blogger friend even advised using Taiwan Cabbage - can't say I've heard of that or seen in anywhere...)
- Cabbage: Preparing for softening - remove the first outer layer which may be soiled; in order to lift off each cabbage leaf (next step) you need to deal with the core. Some people suggest cutting out the core, but I found that particularly hard to do so I simply made deep cuts around the core, and didn't worry about actually removing it.
- Cabbage: softening and removing leaves - my memory told me that we simply placed the cabbage in boiling water and like magic, one by one, the outer leaves became soft and were removed. I had tons of suggestions on this - especially after my call for advice. Here's what happened - the cabbage leaves were not quickly softening as I had expected (and recalled), and even once they were soft enough to remove, they still seemed rather stiff, not limp and easy to roll, almost "plastic-y". I still have no idea why, but here are some of the tips I was offered - and may experiment with next time.
- place in boiling water, core down and add 2 cups of vinegar to the water. Nutmeg Disrupted
- maybe cover pot with lid for a bit
- use a pressure cooker to semi-cook the cabbage, leaving leaves soft and limp
- do not add salt to the water (I didn't) since it makes leaves tougher
- place cabbage in a large bowl, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and microwave 3-6 minutes until outer leaves are pliable and translucent; remove outer leaves with tongs, set aside and repeat as necessary.
- and the winner is - freeze the cabbage(s). Place them in the freezer two days before; the night before project day, remove them from the freezer. One person suggested putting it in the fridge to thaw, but another said she never had a problem leaving it out on the counter - in both cases in a lipped tray to catch the liquid. That's my plan for next time!!
- And one more tip: fellow blogger says she finds freezing is easier and better than blanching, but freezing and them steaming gets the cabbage much softer than either method alone. Instead of thawing the frozen cabbage, so stick the whole frozen head in a very large pot with 2 inches of boiling water and leave it for 10 minutes before trying to peel off leaves.
- Cabbage Leaf Size and Prep - you want each leaf to be a bit larger than the size of your hand. For almost every leaf, you will trim the hard, somewhat unpliable spine. This website has photos that show nicely what that looks like. The larger outer leaves will be cut in half (after trimming down the spine). Some even suggest using a "V" cut to totally remove the thick spine and then just overlap the cabbage leaf in that spot before filling and rolling - have not tried that...
- Cabbage: The Roll - I have muscle memory of doing this. Cabbage leaf in hand, begin to roll leaf to cover filling; fold in one side of the leaf, continue to roll and use your finger to tuck in the other side. Your technique may not matter - but that's how we did it. The exception is the large outer leaves that are cut in half. Even though the spine was trimmed, it may still be too stiff to fold over or tuck in. In that case you simply make a roll shaped like a cone. (see photo below)
- Which fat to use - I know for sure that my grandmother - and perhaps even my mother - would have used shortening for this. You can use oil, but lard or bacon fat would be more flavourful if you have some.
- Tomato Sauce? Juice? - my mother's recipe specified both, but I'm not sure why. For sure the tomato "sauce" would have been home-made. They used to bottle tomato sauce in the old beer bottles pictured below. Was that pure tomato with nothing added? Was it cooked before being bottled? I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that a purchased tomato sauce is going to contain some salt and spices / flavouring. Other options I considered - canned San Marzano tomatoes, blitzed in a food processor? Italian Passata? Apparently cooked / not cooked is the difference between a tomato sauce and passata. I used passata - might change my mind next time. With respect to the "juice" - for sure that has salt added and I can only guess that they chose to add juice for it's thicker consistency (and flavour?) - the home-made tomato "sauce" was a bit more watery.
- Anything Missing? Some recipes use sauerkraut and/or raw eggs in the meat mixture. My family did neither.
- Variations - I thought I'd share a few links from fellow bloggers who offered me a lot of tips. Bernice at Dish ‘n’ the Kitchen (blogging in Saskatchewan) shared her version of her Hungarian grandma's cabbage rolls featuring dill, red peppers, and only beef. Since my paternal grandparents farmed in Spiritwood SK for a while, I love glimpses into her life "out west". Redawna, blogging at Nutmeg Disrupted from Grande Prairie, shares a Ukrainian variation using dill and cream. P.S. If you follow Redawna on Instagram, you'll be treated to the most stunning photos of prairie skies!
- For KB Recipe Attribution Practices please click here.
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