If I had to name one dish that immediately recalls childhood for me, it would be this one. Stuffed cabbage rolls called Holubtzi in Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and possibly other Slavic languages, invariably bring back memories of my Kindergarten. You see, in our Kindergarten they fed us breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner, all cooked on premises.
There were no fish sticks, no pizza, no griny fish crackers, no chicken nuggets or any other mass produced, sprinkled with sugar and rapidly frozen brain burps of ersatz-nutrition industry. We had a full staff of professional cooks, working ’round the clock to feed 150-200 kids five days a week. It cost our parents nothing. And I must say, we were quite well fed back then. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really miss Soviet Union, but I do miss our Kindergarten.
But I digress… So Holubtzi, or stuffed cabbage rolls if you please, were served at our Kindergarten quite regularly, in spite of the labor that goes into making them. They were also served at any self-respecting cafeteria. As for my family, we made them at least a couple of times a year. The reason being — they are quite inexpensive to make and very nutritious.
For practical housekeepers there is another reason — you make a large batch and you freeze most of it for later. It’s a dish that keeps on dishing. They freeze beautifully and make a comeback from the freezer with both their flavor and structural integrity unaffected. This makes the labor put in a lot more cost effective — you slave once for an hour, cook it hands-free for another hour, and you are done. The effort is well worth it for both practical and gastronomical reasons. That, of course, is if you like cabbage as much as I do.
Interested? Great! Here is the What and How, for tonight’s dinner, which filled an 11″ x 13″ roasting pan:
Holubtzi, or Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
- 1 medium to large ripe cabbage, no young lettucy things please!
For the farce:
- 1 lbs of lean ground beef
- 1 large onion
- 3 medium carrots
- 1 egg
- 2 large cloves of garlic, minced
- small splash of Worcestershire sauce (optional)
- 1 tsp sweet paprika
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- salt, pepper to taste
- 3/4 cup of rice, short grain is preferred but not mandatory
For the sauce:
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 28 oz can of diced tomatoes
- 2 cups stock (or water)
- 2 large cloves of garlic, minced
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 2 tbsp sugar
- salt, fresh ground black pepper
- fresh herbs of your choice
- a few sprigs of thyme
- 1 bay leaf
Prepare the cabbage. Pierce the cabbage with a strong knife around the stem and cut into it to the depth of about 3 inches. Remove the core. Boil a pot of water, large enough to hold the cabbage, add 1 tsp salt. Reduce heat to simmer and submerge the cabbage. Keep cabbage in simmering water at least 10 minutes, until outer leaves start separating easily. If the cabbage is very coarse, you may need to keep it in water longer. When done, remove from the pot and set aside to cool.
Boil rice with 1-1/2 cups of water for 10 minutes (while cabbage is cooking, for example). Drain the rice.
While the cabbage is cooking, you can make both sauce and farce.
For the sauce, chop one of the onions finely. Melt butter in a deep skillet or a Dutch oven, saute onions slowly, until very fragrant and golden, add tomatoes, lemon juice, salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaf, sugar, and about half of the minced garlic, and simmer until tomatoes become bright red. Add stock, and simmer some more until everything is blended well and is very fragrant. Set aside.
For the farce, pulse carrots, onion, herbs and garlic in a processor until finely chopped, but not minced. In a bowl, combine ground beef, processed vegetables, egg and the rest of the items, adding rice last so as not to cook the egg if rice is still hot. Mix everything well, until uniform.
To stuff the cabbage, carefully peel cabbage leaves one by one, remove the coarsest part in the middle of each leaf with a sharp knife. Cut each leaf in half lengthwise. Using a flat meat pounder, pound the edges of the cabbage leaves to make them tender and pliable. Place about 2-3 tbsp of farce along the narrow side of the leaf and wrap the leaf like to form a shape resembling an egg roll or an enchilada. Some people insist on tucking in the ends. I think it doesn’t really matter, since the cabbage will wilt and cover the ends on its own. Proceed with the remaining farce and cabbage, until all of the farce is used up. Pack Holubtzi snugly into a Dutch oven, deep baking dish or an oven proof pot. Pour the sauce over the rolls to cover them completely.
You can cook Holubtzi either on a stove top or in the oven. If using the oven, place the pan in the middle, and set the oven to 400 degrees. Make sure all rolls are immersed in the sauce, else they’ll burn. If cooking on a stove, cover and cook on low, after bringing to a boil. Cook for about 1 hr on a stove or 1-1/2 hrs in the oven. If you like your cabbage very tender, cook about 15 minutes longer.
Serve hot with a dollop of sour cream and crusty sourdough bread.