~ My Mother's Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (Holubki) ~
My mom's stuffed cabbage rolls are more than just a family favorite. They are the best rendition of this Eastern European, ethnic classic that I can provide to you. Her holubki (pronounced ho-loob-kee) are requested by our family and get served for almost all holidays. Whenever my husband Joe and I are visiting my parents she makes a pot of them just for Joe (who would live on holubki if he could or I would let him). Mom learned how to make stuffed cabbage "on the job" from her mother (my Coaldale Baba who lived in Coaldale, PA), just as I have learned to make them from my mom... which makes me a third generation stuffed cabbage cooker.
Back in the 1980's and 90's, when she and my dad tailgated with us for all Penn State home games, each year our tailgate group planned an entire Slavic menu around mom's holubki. Mom would pack up her pots and come to State College and she and I would have a holupki cooking marathon the day before that game. This is no lie, when mom was making her legendary cabbage rolls, everyone in our group invited guests and we always fed over 60 tailgaters that week.
I am well aware of how many variations of cabbage rolls exist. I just finished doing a search on the internet and my head is spinning out of cabbage roll control. Most cuisines have some sort of cabbage roll in their repertoire, just like they have their own version of crepes, dumplings, flatbread, etc. Each cuisine makes use of ingredients and resources they have on hand. For instance: if they lived in an area suited for raising sheep, you'll find lamb in their cabbage rolls, or, if they lived in climate where vegetables grow year round, you'll find things like bell peppers and chunky tomatoes in theirs. I will, however, go out on a limb and state: when I say "cabbage roll", you should say "Eastern European", because that is the cuisine they are most commonly associated with. While my Eastern European family refers to them as holubki, here are some other names you'll run into as per Wikipedia: golubtsy (Russia); golabki (Poland); halubcy (Belarus); holubtsi (Ukraine); kohlroulade (Germany & Austria); sarma (Balkans & Turkey). My mother tells me the literal translation of the word holubki is: "little doves" or "little pigeons".
What all stuffed cabbage rolls have in common is: They consist of cooked cabbage that has been wrapped around a meat-based filling (traditionally beef, lamb or pork) which has been seasoned with onion, sometimes garlic and spices common to the culture. A grain of some sort is used to bind the mixture together, with rice or barley being the two most common. Cabbage rolls are rustic, peasant-food and this dish originated as a way to use leftover food. Because of this, you'll sometimes come across versions using ingredients like hard-cooked eggs, sauteed mushrooms and/or pickled cabbage (sauerkraut). Once the cabbage leaves are stuffed, they can be baked, simmered or steamed in a covered vessel and are eaten warm accompanied by a sauce. Eastern Europeans top theirs with very simple tomato-based sauces and occasionally a dollop of sour cream. This is a one-dish meal folks, so don't worry about serving anything else with cabbage rolls except for coffee and dessert.
If you have hesitated to make stuffed cabbage because you don't have the time to do them justice, that is justified. On the other hand, if you've hesitated to make stuffed cabbage because you think they're too difficult, once you've visually seen how it is done (first hand or via step-by-step pictures), you'll wonder why you've waited so long. Each step in itself is really easy... trust me. And, like most somewhat time-consuming, slow-cooked comfort food made with lots of love, they actually taste better if made a day or two ahead of time. I have more good news for you: they can be frozen, so if you can make the time, do what I do and make a triple batch:
Part One: Choosing, Coring and Cooking the Cabbage
~ Step 1. Choosing cabbage. My mom pretty much made stuffed cabbage whenever she found really nice cabbage at The Hometown Farmers' Market or in the Tamaqua A&P, usually in the Fall and Winter months. I remember her saying to me, "look for 3, young, tender, medium-sized, pretty green-colored heads that do not have any splits or tears in them". I have nothing to add to these instructions.
My husband grows his own cabbage (pictured here) and for some reason the heads seem to be much larger than what I see in the store. The size of the head does not affect how many leaves you will get, but it does indeed affect how many stuffed cabbage rolls your are going to get, which affects how much filling you need to make. Here is my estimation of what to expect:
1 large head of cabbage will yield: 14-16 large-sized stuffed cabbage rolls requiring 1/2 cup of filling each (Note: When my mom is faced with large heads of cabbage, she cuts these large steamed leaves in half, so she ends up with 28-32 medium-sized cabbage rolls requiring 1/4 cups of filling each. She prefers smaller rolls. I happen to like larger ones, so I do not do this.)
1 medium head of cabbage will yield: 14-16 medium-sized stuffed cabbage rolls requiring 1/4 cup of filling each.
Yesterday, I steamed one large head of cabbage and 1 medium head of cabbage and ended up with 16 large cabbage rolls, 16 medium-sized cabbage rolls and just 1/2 cup of meat filling leftover, so I know the recipe I am sharing with you today is as accurate as humanly possible.
~ Step 3. Cooking Cabbage. In a wide-bottomed 12-quart stockpot, bring 8 quarts of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Gently lower the first head of cabbage into the water. The cabbage is going to want to float, so, using a long-handled fork, hold it underwater for a minute or two to allow the boiling water to begin flowing through the cracks and crevices between the leaves.
Do not force or pry the leaves loose. Each leaf is ready to pull away from the head when the fork can easily lift it away. Once each cabbage leaf is free of the head, depending upon its thickness, it will require 15-45 seconds more in the water bath. Each leaf should be just tender enough to fold in half without cracking, yet still firm enough to form a container for the meat filling without tearing. Pay attention. The large outer leaves will cook more quickly than the small inner leaves.
~ Step 4. For each head of cabbage I am cooking I line one 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan with plastic wrap. As I take the cabbage leaves out of the pot, I fold them in half and arrange them on the pan.
~ Step 5. RESERVE 3-QUARTS OF THIS FLAVORFUL WATER FROM THE CABBAGE STEAMING PROCESS! WE'LL BE USING IT AS THE BASE TO MAKE OUR TOMATO SAUCE! I am so happy my grandmother taught mom and I this "trick", because it is so much better than using water, stock or broth to simmer/cook stuffed cabbage in.
Part Two: Making the Meat Filling
The following recipe makes enough filling for 3 medium-sized heads of cabbage or one large head and one medium head (like I made yesterday). I always make enough stuffed cabbage so I can freeze one or two 13" x 9" x 2" baking dishes of it and I highly recommend you do too. But, in the event you are only cooking one medium-sized head of cabbage (for about 16 medium-sized stuffed cabbage rolls), you'll want to make one-third of the following recipe, which is easy to do and I've included those calculations for you too.
6 pounds freshly ground sirloin (95/5), or 2 pounds per head of cabbage (Note: Sirloin is my preference, but this recipe can be prepared using extra-lean (90/10) or lean (85/15) without compromise.)
1 pound uncooked, long-grain white rice, or 3/4 cup per head of cabbage
3 cups finely diced yellow or sweet onion, or 1 cup per head of cabbage
4 ounces butter (1 stick), or 1/3 stick per head of cabbage
2 seasoning packets from 1 box of G.Washington's Rich Brown Seasoning and Broth Mix, or 1/2 teaspoon G.W's seasoning mix per head of cabbage (Note: This WWII-era dehydrated spice mixture was created by Paul J. Campbell in 1937 to replace instant broth/bouillon. It was a well-known family secret of my grandmother's and I keep it on-hand in my pantry so I can duplicate her recipes without fail. It's readily available to me at my local grocery store and on-line as well.)
1 1/2 tablespoons salt, or 2 1/2 teaspoons per head of cabbage
2 teaspoons black pepper, or a generous 1/2 teaspoon per head of cabbage
6 extra-large eggs, preferably at room temperature, or 2 eggs per head of cabbage
~ Step 2. Place rice in rice cooker with 3 cups of water (use a standard measuring cup for the water, NOT the measuring cup from the rice cooker). Turn on, to steam. When the rice cooker shuts off, the rice will be firm and slightly undercooked. If you're cooking rice on the stovetop, be sure to slightly undercook it!
~ Step 4. In a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan, melt the butter over low heat. Stir in the seasoning packets, salt and pepper. Add the onion and increase heat to saute, until it is soft and translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Do not allow onions to brown. Remove from heat.
Set the mixture aside, stirring occasionally (to avoid clumping) until the mixture is cool enough to handle with your hands, about 1 hour. In the meantime:
~ Step 6. Add the eggs to the ground sirloin and, using your hands, thoroughly combine.
Part Three: Making the Sauce
This incredibly-simple, brothlike-sauce is truly what sets my family's stuffed cabbage apart from the rest. Each and every time someone asks mom or I, "what is in this wonderful sauce", I sooooo enjoy the look on their face when one of us says, "Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup". Yes folks, I just revealed another one of the best kept secrets of the WWII generation. Stop rolling your eyes and put that fancy can of San Marzano tomatoes back in your pantry.
3 quarts "cabbage water", reserved from above
4 10 3/4-ounce cans Campbell's condensed tomato soup
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon black pepper, more or less, to YOUR taste
Note: My family likes our sauce slightly spicy because it balances out the not-very-spicy cabbage rolls. If you're in doubt about how much to use on your "maiden cabbage roll voyage", start with half as much pepper.
~ Step 1. Bring sauce mixture to a steady simmer over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Continue to simmer about 5-6 minutes or until smooth. Taste. If you decide to add more pepper, continue to cook another minute and taste again. Remove from heat, cover the pot and set aside. How easy was that!
Part Four: Assembling and Cooking
Assembling stuffed cabbage is fun and it goes quite quickly. As for cooking, like I mentioned above, they can be baked, simmered or steamed. My grandmother and mother always layered them in a huge pot and simmered them in the sauce... and they are oh so wonderful cooked in that manner. That being said, after all of this work, no matter how hard they or I tried, cabbage rolls cooked in this fashion tend to break down or fall apart, especially if your eating them on the second day. I wanted to achieve the same flavor my family does, with a better texture and a premiere presentation. I decided to change things up a bit. I've never looked back:
~ Step 1. Spray one to three 13" x 9" x 2" glass or ceramic baking dishes with no-stick cooking spray, depending upon how many cabbage rolls you are preparing.
~ Step 2. On a flat work surface, place one cabbage leaf, concave side down, and using a paring knife, trim the thick core vein from the center of it. Depending upon the size and thickness of each cabbage leaf, this core vein can/will be large or quite small.
Note: This step should not be omitted because it makes the rolling process a lot easier and the finished product more user friendly.
Note: Leaves from a large head of cabbage will require two scoops (or 1/2 cup of filling) while medium-sized leaves will need just one scoop (or 1/4 cup of filling).
Preheat oven to 300-325 degrees.
~ Step 4. This picture shows you how to arrange the 16 medium-sized cabbage rolls in each pan. No matter how many stuffed cabbage rolls are in each pan, ladle sauce to within 1/2"-3/4" of the top of the dish, about 3 cups in each. Cover and seal each with aluminum foil. Leaving this headspace at the top is important as steam will build up during the cooking process.
Remove from oven. Uncover and ladle 1-1 1/2 additional cups of warm sauce into each dish. Recover with the foil and let rest about 30 minutes prior to serving...
... as is/family-style or portioned into individual warmed serving bowls:
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife and/or paring knife; 12-quart stockpot; long-handled fork; 1-3, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans; plastic wrap; electric rice steamer (optional); 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides; large spoon; 6-8 quart stockpot w/lid; 1-3, 13" x 9" x 2" baking dishes (preferably glass or ceramic); 2 1/2" ice-cream scoop; soup ladle; aluminum foil
Cook's Note: Do not be intimidated by this crazy-long post. I merely wanted to give everyone a birds-eye view of what to do when making cabbage rolls. That being said, each and every step, steaming the cabbage, mixing the meat, and making the sauce can be done one day ahead of assembling and cooking without any compromise in flavor or texture!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2011)