~ Unstuffed: Deconstructed Stuffed Cabbage Rolls ~
Deconstruct. It is perhaps the oddest new-age foodie word I have ever encountered. When the word "deconstructed" appears in front of a menu item, I find myself wanting to ask, "what was wrong with it to begin with?" That's because, historically, in my kitchen, the reason for me to deconstruct, or, "dismantle a dish piece by piece", is usually to find out why a recipe doesn't work. In today's world, it's trendy for some chefs to artfully arrange the wreckage on a plate, serve it "deconstructed", then, charge you twice as much to put it back together on your fork.
Feel free to conclude I'm not a fan of deconstructed dishes. I am, however, the first to admit there are exceptions to every rule, and, today's recipe is one such exception. Why? Because the end justifies the means in a big, beautiful way: Every forkful of the finished "deconstructed" version of the dish is uncompromisingly just as delicious as the classic original, and, the time saved by not cooking many of the components first and assembling them together in the typical manner is marked. All I can say is: Where has this "deconstructed" recipe been all my life?
When we arrived at my parents, I immediately deduced we were having stuffed cabbage rolls for dinner on this visit. Mom's 8-quart stainless-steel Farberware pot was on the stovetop, and, her extra-large yellow Pyrex bowl was sitting on the countertop with the big Farberware spoon in it, right next to her favorite wooden cutting board and all-purpose knife. It's worth mention than all of these "vintage" items were bridal and wedding gifts to them -- and, on May 16th, 2016, that makes them all 63 years old.
Stuffed cabbage rolls, known as "holubki" to me and "golumpki" to many of you, are a beloved favorite in every Eastern European kitchen. Everyone makes them a bit differently, with the constants being: ground meat (beef, pork and/or lamb), cooked rice or grain, steamed green cabbage leaves and a tomato-based sauce. Because they are sort of labor-intensive, they are often served for holidays or special occasions.
First, the leaves must be removed whole, one-at-a-time from the head of cabbage -- this is usually done via steaming them off in a large pot of boiling water. Next, in order to make the meat filling, in a saucepan, the rice must be cooked, and, in a skillet, the onion must be sautéed in some butter and spices. Once the meat is mixed, the wrapping and rolling takes place. After all of that is done (and cleaned up), the cabbage rolls get placed in a pot or a casserole, a sauce gets made and poured over the top of them, and, finally, it's onto the stovetop or into the oven they go. It's a project, and, don't get me wrong, it's worth the effort. That said, this new-to-me method that my mother just showed me rocked my stuffed cabbage world.
Mom had a mischievous chuckle in her voice when she told me she was going to show me how to make her "Lazy Lady's Halupki". It was the type of chuckle that that comes from a cook who is about to reveal a "well-guarded cheaters secret" to another cook. Apparently, this is how she's been making stuffed cabbage for weeknight fare for herself and dad for years. Trust me, I was all ears -- I decided to get out my camera, a notepad and a pen for the afternoon too.
2 1/2-2 3/4 pounds extra-lean ground beef (93/7 or 90/10) (Note: This photo shows a package of 85/15. Underneath it is a second package of 95/5. Mom combined the two. She also explained that on that day, her local grocery store did not have two packages of 93/7 or 90/10.)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon coarsely-ground black pepper
1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice, not "Minute rice" (8 ounces)
2 medium-sized yellow onions, about 6-ounces each, finely diced (about 2 cups)
1 seasoning packet from 1 box of G.Washington's Rich Brown Seasoning and Broth Mix (1/2 teaspoon salt may be substituted) (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.)
2 large eggs, beaten
2 10 1/4-ounce cans Campbell's tomato soup (3 cans if you like your broth extra-tomato-y)
2 1/2 quarts water (10 cups)
2 additional teaspoons salt + 1 teaspoon additional coarsely-ground black pepper
~Step 1. Mixing the meat. Place the ground beef in a large bowl. Sprinkle the salt and pepper evenly over the top. Using a large spoon or your hands, mix to combine. Measure and sprinkle the rice over the top, then, give that a thorough mix too. Finely dice the onion, add it along with the G.Washinton's seasoning packet and mix again. In a small bowl, using a fork, beat the eggs, add them, and, you guessed it, give the whole thing one last very thorough mix. Easy enough so far?
~ Step 2. Forming the meatballs. Between the palms of your hands, form the meat mixture into 3 1/2 dozen meatballs, approximately 1 1/2-ounces each, placing them on a large plate as you work. Note: In my kitchen, I use a kitchen scale which makes it really easy to insure the meatballs are all the same size. My mom uses a round tablespoon.
~Step 3. Cabbage prep. Remove a few soft, leafy outer leaves from the head of cabbage and layer them in the bottom of an 8-quart stockpot. Cut the head in half, remove the hard core section and coarsely chop the two halves.
~Step 4. Everybody into the pot. Arrange half the meatballs on top of cabbage in the bottom of the pot. Top meatballs with half the chopped cabbage. Arrange the remaining half of the meatballs on top of the chopped cabbage and, top the meatballs with the remaining half of the cabbage. Add the tomato soup, water, salt and pepper. Cover the pot and bring to a steady simmer/almost boil over medium-high heat. Remove the lid and, using a large spoon, gently push down on any cabbage floating on the top. Cover the pot, adjust heat to a gentle simmer and continue to cook for 1 1/2 hours.
Note: If you have the patience to wait, turn the heat off and allow your deconstructed stuffed cabbage rolls to "steep" in the brothy goodness for an hour prior to reheating a bit and serving.
My food world works in mysterious ways...
The ingredients list stays the same and so does the layering process. The only change I made was to use a 1 3/4" ice-cream scoop as a measure for the meat mixture instead of a soupspoon. The meatballs are bit smaller, each one weighs 1 1/4 ounces instead of 1 1/2 ounces, so, you get more, 44-50 (depending on whether you use 2 1/2 pounds of ground beef or 2 3/4 pounds of ground beef -- I used 2 3/4 pounds today and there are 24 on the first layer and 26 on the second layer. When everything is in a 6 1/2-quart crockpot, you'll use a bit less water, 8-9 cups rather than 10. Put the lid on and cook on high for 4 hours, then on low for 2 more hours.
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; large spoon; fork; round tablespoon or kitchen scale; 8-quart stockpot w/lid or 6 1/2-quart crockpot
Cook's Note: If it is a tutorial on the traditional method for making stuffed cabbage, it's all in my post, ~ My Mother's Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (Holubki) ~, which can be found by clicking into Categories 3, 12, 17, 19 or 22.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2016)