As a Jewish cookbook author and food writer, it may come as a surprise that I didn’t learn to make stuffed cabbage from my mother or grandmothers. In fact, the first time I tried the classic dish was at a hotel in Lakewood, New Jersey. What I knew of anything similar were my grandma’s stuffed peppers and stuffed grape leaves with rice and lemon sauce.
So, when my daughters were married and we everybody over for a holiday meal, my sons-in-law asked: “Where’s the stuffed cabbage?” It’s what they expected.
For me, this was a big Oy. I am a Jewish mother, so I believe that at least some happiness can happen with food — and I wanted them to be happy.
Needless to say, I got right on the case. I did a lot of experimenting. There were several failures, several “these are ok,” and then, finally, “bingo” – I got it right for everyone. A sort of mixed-Eastern European-Ashkenazi-American version, sweet-and-sour tomatoey with raisins, of course.
No matter which recipe you use, classic, vegetarian or your own family’s special version, these tips will apply.
1. You Actually Don’t Need to Use Cabbage
Gasp! It’s true — you don’t have to use cabbage. Any leafy green will do, including chard or kale (and even grape leaves). But cabbage is classic, so if you are going that route, buy either one very large head or two medium heads. Savoy cabbage is fancier, but pricier. I use a regular green cabbage. If you use one large cabbage you end up with both large and small stuffed rolls. I separate the sizes, serving the large ones for dinner, freezing the little ones for a nosh. With two heads of cabbage, you can make all the rolls large and use the smaller leaves for another recipe. Try this recipe for vegetarian stuffed cabbage using swiss chard.
2. Separating the Leaves
There are actually two different ways you can easily separate the leaves. Method #1: After removing as much of the core as possible with a utility knife, immerse the head of cabbage into boiling water for 20-second intervals and lift the leaves with tongs as they separate in the pot. Method #2: Freeze the entire cabbage (cored) for at least 24 hours, then allow it to thaw. The leaves will come off easily and will be ready for stuffing.
3. Fill It Up
The filling can take many forms. My family’s favorite version of stuffed cabbage uses rice and either bread crumbs or matzah meal as a binder. Matzah meal or bread crumbes will add bulk and also some smoothness to the filling. It’s fine to use just matzah meal during Passover. I prefer to make beef-based stuffed cabbage, but I will also sometmes mix the ground meat with either ground turkey or veal, which makes the stuffing more tender; however I do not recommend using all ground turkey, which tends to be drier than ground beef. Try this recipe for a Passover-friendly stuffed cabbage recipe.
4. Use the Core!
Instead of throwing out that tough core, try using it! The cabbage core that remains in the very center is a useful bed for under the cabbage rolls. Chop it and add the pieces to the bottom of the casserole dish you use for the rolls. It gives more cabbage for everyone to eat — but isn’t a necessary addition if you want to use the pieces for something else (like some vegetable stock).
5. Just Use Sugar
The sauce I created is definitely sweet, but it’s offset with lots of lemon juice too. I’ve tried making the sauce with honey, date sugar, maple syrup, and gingersnaps, but truly, plain old brown sugar is best. Don’t mess with a successful formula when it’s delicious and works.
6. Use Canned Tomatoes
Although the sauce is tomatoey, I don’t use fresh or canned tomatoes, tomato puree, or paste (tried all those!). No ketchup either (I tried that once, mixing the ketchup with fresh grated horseradish). Bottled chili sauce has the right texture, the right amount of heat, and is very handy — just pour it out of the bottle. Easy.
7. Add Marrow Bones
If you’re feeling extra fancy, add marrow bones to your sauce, especially if you have a few extra sitting in your freezer (which I highly recommend). If you don’t happen to have any, or prefer not to use, don’t stress.
For more stuffed cabbage recipes read this.