It’s January. It’s cold. It’s dark. There is nothing better than cooking up comfort foods and family favourites. Especially those casseroles that are easy on the budget and not too bad on the calorie count. The first time I ever ate cabbage rolls I was 23 years old. Yup, I had been living in the dark ages up until then… Cabbage was hardly, if ever served at home when I was growing up. I am not sure why. I suspect my mom’s distaste of the cruciferous globe may have had something to do with it. And to think of it, I am not sure that she disliked cabbage, I simply think she didn’t like cooking with it much.
At any rate, I never tasted the little parcels until I met my King. One of our first get away together was at his family’s cottage. It was January (we had recently met in December) and we were completely gaga over one another. Yes, already! To celebrate our newly found love, the King had invited me to spend some quiet alone time at the cottage (yes, the same cottage I refer to frequently in this blog). Although the cottage is more a house than a cabin, it does get closed down completely for the winter months. It requires a bit of work to get it going and habitable during this season: other than electricity, there is no running water and no instant heat. A big cast iron woodstove eventually keeps every one warm and cozy (until the fire dies out in the middle of the night) and water is lugged in from a hole dug through the ice on the lake. We need this water to clean dishes, tend to basic personal hygiene and flush the toilet. In the winter, the cottage is half rustic and half city slicker!!! It didn’t take me long to get accustomed to cottage life, regardless of the season but on that very first romantic get away, the King planned everything himself. I guess he was trying to impress! He went ahead of time to get the place all toasty and comfy, to dig the hole in the ice, to clear a pathway from the road to the front door and to bring up the edible supplies we would need. He then returned to town to pick me up… Such chivalry!!! Amongst the dishes he brought along for our sustenance were these magnificent cabbage rolls. One bite and my heart was 100% conquered. It took me a while to discover that his mother, not him, was the real cabbage roll master. I simply assumed he had made them and he simply didn’t elaborate. Oh well, one small omission of truth on his part lol! And by the time the truth finally came out, we were already a solid item! It didn’t matter much to me if cooking was not his thing: since he could still clear the path, dig the hole for water, split the wood and keep me nice and warm in the deep dead of winter, I was than happy to take over kitchen duties. Yes, I have very fond memories of our first weekend together. I knew then that not only would I end up spending a long time with this wonderful man, I also knew that one day, I would learn to make these little gems of cabbage, meat and rice!
It is my understanding that many, many families have their own cabbage roll recipes. Depending on the recipes’ origins, cabbage rolls can be made with fresh cabbage or with sauerkraut. Some recipes have tomatoes and others don’t. Some have more rice and others more meat. The truth is that I have never tried a homemade cabbage rolls that I didn’t like! There is just something über comforting about these plump pockets of meat and rice. This recipe is the exact recipe I had fallen in love with so many moons ago. It is very economical to make although it does require an investment in time. Since they also freeze very well, I tend to double the recipe and freeze the leftovers for quick and easy meals. It is bound to warm your heart.
Pretli Family Cabbage Rolls
What you need:
- 1 large green cabbage or Savoy cabbage
- 1 cup white rice
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 yellow onions, finely chopped
- 3 lbs lean ground beef (1.3 kg)
- 2 tbsp sweet Hungarian paprika
- 1 ½ tbsp salt
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper or hot paprika
- 4 cups tomato juice (1L)
- ½ cup tomato ketchup
How to make it :
- Set to boil a large deep stock pot with salted water
- Using a small sharp knife, remove the core of the cabbage while leaving the cabbage whole with all the leaves attached
- Place the cabbage in the pot, keeping the water to a soft boil
- Using kitchen tongues, remove cabbage leaves one by one once they are cooked. You will need a bit of patience to get to the center of the cabbage and you do not want to undercook the leaves. The cabbage should be tender enough to be pliable without being overcooked. Overcooked leaves will break easily
- Deposit cooked leaves in cold water to stop the cooking process
- Meanwhile, cook rice covered with plenty of salted water, maybe 2 inches above rice. Bring to a boil and cook for 9 minutes. Drain rice but make sure to keep cooking liquid. The rice cooking water will be used to help bind the meat mixture.
- In large bowl, mix together: beef, onions, garlic, cooked rice, Hungarian paprika, salt and cayenne. Once well blended, add just enough reserved rice cooking liquid to moistened meat mixture. The texture should resemble that of sausage meat.
Stuffing the leaves:
- Drain cabbage leaves well and remove any excess water. With a paring knife, remove or trim down the coarse rib of each leaf.
- Reserve 2 or 3 large cabbage leaves
- Lay one leaf at a time on a flat surface and add a generous scoop of filling, approximately the equivalent of an ice cream scoop, not quite in the middle of the leaf. If you were to separate the leaf in 3 imaginary zones, the filling would go on the first third closest to where the rib was. Start rolling from this end, folding sides over the center, tucking the leaf snuggly in the ends.
- Proceed until all the meat has been used
- Coarsely chop the remaining cabbage, except for the reserved leaves.
- In a large and deep casserole dish*, spread half the chopped cabbage. Layer cabbage rolls on top, then spread the remaining chopped cabbage over the rolls.
- Whisk together the tomato juice and the ketchup. Pour over the cabbage rolls. Lay the large leaves on top, pressing down slightly to help the liquid spread evenly.
- Cover and bake at 350°F for 1 ½ hours
*I like to use a deep covered roasting pan, especially if I make a double batch.