Stuffed cabbage: From humble beginnings to staple comfort food

Rolled cabbage in a red pot for cooking

In many cultures cooking is an important skill that children learn before they attend school. Knowing how to feed yourself and your friends and family can mean the difference between sickness and health, heartache and happiness, dissatisfaction and delight.

Most professional cooks who are passionate and confident in the kitchen can name someone who inspired and infused them—who passed on their own love of food.

I can name, first and foremost, my mother, Frances Krcek.

My mom, the youngest of four children, was born in Ternopil, Ukraine in 1919. She learned to cook the foods of her Eastern European youth from her own mother and sisters. When, at the tender age of 17, her family sent her alone to America “for a better life,” she didn’t hesitate to mingle the foods of her new world with the old. She learned how to make lasagna, polenta, roasted vegetables and risotto. She ate my Indian, Chinese and Thai food with relish. Often she would accompany me to my favorite suburban Detroit sushi spot.

Though she is gone, my mom, like so many good kitchen mentors, cast a cooking spell over me. Food was the center of her existence. My mom rarely allowed me to cook without adding her opinions and hints—and oh, that was very often challenging for me—a trained chef! We shared a lively passion for food and cooking, watching Iron Chef even as she lay bedridden and ailing. She enjoyed food to the end.

My mom was only 5’2,” but she surely stood taller when she was in a kitchen. Her holiday feasts were especially legendary, fraught as they were with cheesecake, meatballs, vareniki (pierogi), borscht, porcini gravy, brownies, paska (egg-rich bread), beet salad, prune-stuffed pastries, pickled herring, kasha (buckwheat), poppyseed cake and my personal favorite, holubtsi (stuffed cabbage).

As with any dish, there seem to be hundreds of recipes for stuffed cabbage—but still one basic method: boil the whole cabbage head, gently pull off the leaves as they turn tender, shave off the ribs and stuff the leaves with sautéed onions, rice or meat or a combination. Lastly, layer them into a casserole, pour broth or a sauce over top, cover and bake.

My Ukrainian mother, and her St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church friends in Warren, Michigan, stuffed their cabbage with cooked rice, sautéed onions and a little cooked ground beef or veal then poured canned tomato sauce over the top before baking. That was the simple stuffed cabbage I grew up eating at church picnics and social hall gatherings. Sometimes, to my delight, my mother would stuff cabbage with cooked roasted buckwheat (kasha) and onions sautéed in olive oil.

Imagine my surprise, when researching stuffed cabbage, to find that not only did I share my stuffed cabbage heritage with Poland, Czech Republic, Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe—there was Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Japan (rouru kyabetsu), Sweden and the Middle East to contend with! It seems that there is a stuffed cabbage for most every culture. Of course the Polish have a large claim, but their golumpki don’t vary markedly from my mother’s with the sometime exception of egg in the rice and the occasional mushrooms.

In The Second Avenue Deli Cookbook, Sharon Lebewohl and Rena Bulkin write, “Stuffed cabbage has been a staple of Jewish cooking since the fourteenth century, when it was introduced in Russia by Tartars. There are an infinity of recipes for it, both Eastern European and Middle Eastern.”

Food historian Clifford Wright notes, “Arab cooks are the masters of the stuffed vegetable….Cabbage was part of the Arab culinary repertoire since medieval times. (Stuffing) is traditionally women’s work, but this is communal labor where patience and good spirit is rewarded with happy eaters and a contented cook.”

Sou fassum, the Provençal name (for stuffed cabbage),” Wright continues, “is known in French as chou farci à la Niçoise. It is a specialty of the region around Grasse. Traditionally, the stuffed cabbage leaves are placed in a net made of thick threads called a fassumier that is then lowered

Many cultures claim to have invented stuffed cabbage: Persian, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish. Cultivated cabbage arose from the wild mustard plant, prevalent in and native to Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks (and Romans) knew about cabbage as early as 600 BCE so it’s likely that ancient Greek cooks win the honor. Maybe, like the 100th monkey theory, (a monkey on an island washes her sweet potato before eating and—after 100 monkeys mimic her behavior—monkeys everywhere suddenly start washing their sweet potatoes), they all sort of sprung up at once spontaneously when the 100th cook somewhere rolled rice or meat in her boiled cabbage leaves.

Stuffed cabbage is humble food and probably originated, as most comfort food has, from leftovers and the ubiquitous cabbage. Fillings vary from beef, lamb or pork seasoned with garlic, onion and spices to rice, breadcrumbs, barley, eggs, dried fruit, nuts, legumes, dried or fresh mushrooms and vegetables as part of fillings.

Treatments and sauces for stuffed cabbage vary widely by cuisine: Italian rambasicci use Savoy cabbage and stuff it with a luscious meatball-like filling of spiced ground pork, sometimes with pine nuts and currants. They are served in broth and sprinkled with shredded cheese. Finland’s kaalikääryle and Sweden’s kåldolmar come sweet and sour, laden with lingonberry jam or drizzled with golden syrup. In Eastern Europe, tomato-based sauces, beet or mushroom broth or sour cream rule as toppings. In Greece, egg and lemon sauce graces traditional Christmas lahanodolmades and in Lebanon mahshi malfuf comes with a side of yogurt or tahini-lemon sauce; they are sometimes rolled small and narrow with open ends.

Lebewohl and Bulkin write that the Jewish holiday Succoth is a kind of Azhkenazi Jewish Thanksgiving, “a joyous seven-day autumn harvest festival where stuffed foods — most notably holishkes (stuffed cabbage), but also kreplach, stuffed peppers and strudels — are served to symbolize abundance.”

Stuffed cabbage has certainly snuck into my holiday rituals. Many immigrants to this country combine the best of their old and new world dishes. Like them, my mother never failed to have a roaster full of holubtsi in her oven alongside our holiday turkey, ham or fish.

 

Stuffed Cabbage Sense

  • Cabbages that are loosely packed peel off more easily than the tightly packed heads. Larger heads yield more leaves, but smaller ones are easier to boil. (Savoy cabbage is easiest of all: separate uncooked leaves from the head gently so they don’t tear and boil 4 minutes. Rinse under cold water and drain.)
  • From one 4-pound head you’ll get around 15 to 20 useable large leaves. A 9-pound cabbage or two 4-1/2 pounders yields about 40 large useable leaves, enough for 3 cups raw rice, cooked in 4-1/2 cups water, 3 to 4 cups diced onion and 1 to 1-1/2 pounds ground meat.
  • Pull away blemished leaves and discard. Cut out the cabbage’s core with a long, thin-bladed knife and discard.
  • Bring a large non-aluminum pot of water to boil; add salt. (Cabbage will discolor aluminum and aluminum will off-flavor cabbage.)
  • Insert a long-handled two-prong fork into the cabbage core and drop the cabbage into the boiling water. To keep the cabbage submerged you may place a heavy metal lid (non-aluminum) on top. Later it will stay submerged on its own.
  • Boil the cabbage 3 to 5 minutes and, working with tongs and a paring knife, loosen the leaves from the core. Keep them in the boiling water another minute or so, until tender. Drop the leaves into a colander set over a pan. When they cool and before the next batch comes, drape them in a pile on another sheet pan.
  • Keep boiling the cabbage and pulling off the next layer of leaves as they soften—keep them in the boiling pot until they are tender. When you have a small baseball size core of cabbage left, pull it out.
  • Shave off the rib of the leaves. You may want to cut the leaves larger than a dinner plate in half and remove their ribs.
  • Set the cabbage, stem end nearest you with the outside of the leaf facing the work surface and the inner leaf facing up.
  • At the bottom and in the middle, lay about 2 tablespoons filling on cabbage leaf for smaller leaves (the size of a woman’s hand) and 1/3 to 1/2 cup for large ones (the size of a dinner plate). Bring the sides in and roll up the cabbage leaf from the bottom. Lay seam side down into a casserole pan—tightly against each other.
  • Use excess leaves to cover the stuffed cabbages before baking or chop finely and sauté them with butter or olive oil, onions and sauerkraut for a real taste treat.

 

Braised Italian Cabbage Rolls (Polpette di Verza)

Pestata is a verb that means to crush, grind or pound. This purée of aromatics becomes a flavor foundation. The technique works particularly well in long-simmering dishes.

From Discovering Global Cuisines by Nancy Krcek Allen

Yields 6 cups stuffing, 12 large rolls, 6 servings

 

4 ounces Italian country style bread, 2-1/2 cups diced into medium cubes

2 cups warm chicken stock

Pestata

2 ounces pancetta, 1/4 cup diced into 1/2-inch cubes

8 to 9 ounces onion, 1 large, 2 cups diced into 1-inch cubes

4 ounces carrot, 1 large, 1/2 cup, diced into 3/4-inch cubes

2 ounces celery, 1 large rib, 1/4 cup diced into 1-inch cubes

3/4 ounce garlic, 3 large cloves, peeled

Stuffing

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup dry white wine

2 pounds loose sweet Italian sausage (or removed from casings)

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1/2 ounce trimmed Italian parsley, 1/4 cup chopped

Optional: 3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, 1/2 cup grated

Cabbage and Sauce

2-1/2 to 3 pounds Savoy cabbage, 1 large head

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 cup dry white wine

3 to 3-1/2 cups hot chicken stock

Garnish: 1/2 ounce trimmed Italian parsley, 1/4 cup chopped

For Serving: Hot, cooked rice, potatoes or creamy polenta

  1. Prepare the stuffing: Place bread into a bowl and pour the stock over it. Soak bread until very soft, about 10 minutes depending on bread. Squeeze stock from bread and place into large mixing bowl. Reserve excess stock; there should be at least 1 cup from squeezing. Reserve; this will be used later for braising.
  2. Prepare pestata: Place pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, and garlic into food processor. Pulse-grind until meat and vegetables are fine-textured, just short of a purée, to yield about 2 cups.
  3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Fill a 6-quart pot with water, and bring to a boil.
  4. Prepare stuffing: Pour 3 tablespoons olive oil into a 10- to 12-inch heavy sauté pan or 8-quart Dutch oven, and set over medium-high heat. Stir in half the pestata, about 1 cup, and cook, stirring frequently, until it dries and sticks to pan. Season with 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and pour in the white wine. Bring to a boil, and cook until the wine has evaporated completely, but pestata is still moist. Remove pan from heat, and scrape pestata into bowl with soaked bread to cool until lukewarm. Fold in sausage and mix with hands to break up the raw meat. Work in egg, chopped parsley and optional grated cheese into a loose stuffing. Refrigerate stuffing until needed.
  5. Prepare the cabbage: Pull off and discard bruised or torn outer leaves. Remove core of cabbage, and separate 12 of the largest leaves from the head. Keep them whole. Lay each leaf flat with outer side up. Shave off the raised ridge of the rib at the leaf base with a sharp paring knife. (This may also be done after blanching the leaves.) Finely dice some of the remaining cabbage leaves to fill 4 cups, and set aside. Drop the whole leaves into the boiling water, and blanch until almost tender, but pliable, 4 minutes. Drain leaves, and pat dry.
  6. Prepare the sauce: Return the sauté pan or Dutch oven to the stove. Pour in 3 tablespoons olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Stir in remaining pestata, and cook until it begins to stick, about 4 minutes. Toss in reserved diced cabbage and 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Stir and cook cabbage until wilted, 5 minutes. Pour in white wine, raise the heat and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer the sauce 10 minutes. Scrape sauce into half hotel pan or leave in Dutch oven.
  7. Construct cabbage rolls: Lay out each softened leaf with its shaved rib side down. Form 1/2 cup stuffing into a plump log, and lay it in the middle of the bottom of the leaf. Roll the bottom of the leaf over the filling, tuck the sides in, and roll up tightly the rest of the way.
  8. Fit rolls snugly into the half hotel pan or Dutch oven, seam side down, on top of the sauce. Measure reserved stock and add enough fresh stock to make 4 cups; pour over rolls. The rolls should be almost submerged. Bring pan or Dutch oven to a boil, and cover with foil or lid. Set pan or Dutch oven into the oven to braise 1 hour.
  9. Remove lid, and gently push rolls down into sauce. Bake, uncovered, until sauce and reduced and tops of rolls are lightly browned, 20 to 30 minutes.
  10. To Serve: Place 1 or 2 rolls in warmed, flat soup bowl. Spoon some brothy sauce over top and garnish rolls with parsley. Serve with rice, potatoes or polenta.

Adapted from Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy by Lidia Bastianich

 

Ukrainian Daughter’s Holubtsi

In times of less, Ukrainians made these with little or no meat; in times of prosperity, the amount of meat would increase. Many Ukrainians gather mushrooms they call “pitpanki” and dry them. In Italy they are known as porcini. Lightly cover a 1/3 to 1/2 cup dried porcini with boiling water and allow them to soak for 15 minutes until soft. Pour the soaking water as part of the rice cooking water; add the chopped rehydrated porcini to the cooked rice. My mother would sometimes fold into the filling chopped dill fresh from her garden.

Makes 20 to 30 cabbage rolls

 

2 cups medium- to short-grain raw white rice

1 teaspoon sea or Kosher salt

3 to 4 tablespoons oil

1 medium onion, about 3 cups finely diced

1 to 1-1/4 pounds ground beef, veal or lean turkey

1 large cabbage, core removed

1-1/2 cups tomato purée

 

Bring 3 cups of cold water and rice to a boil. Add salt, cover, lower heat and simmer rice 10 minutes. Remove pot from heat and allow rice to sit undisturbed 15 minutes; fluff rice with a fork.

Pour oil into a sauté pan and heat over medium heat. Brown onion and add ground meat. Cook until done, breaking meat up with a spoon. Combine meat and onions with cooked rice in a mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare cabbage as outlined in Stuffed Cabbage Sense. Reserve 1 cup cabbage boiling water.

Place a cabbage leaf with bottom of leaf closest to you on a work surface. Place a large spoonful of the rice mixture into the center of the leaf and roll up once, tuck in the sides and finish rolling up tightly. Place cabbage rolls tightly into a casserole dish; cover with the tomato purée and the excess cabbage leaves. Pour enough cabbage boiling water over them to come 1/4 of the way up the sides, 1/2 to 1 cup. Cover casserole tightly and place in oven. Bake stuffed cabbage until tender, 1 to 1-1/2 hours.

 

About the Author
Nancy Allen

Nancy Allen

Chef-educator Nancy Krcek Allen has traveled extensively, and has worked in kitchens and classrooms for more than 30 years. She graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. While living in New York City, Allen worked full-time teaching recreational and professional cooking for the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, and in Viareggio, Italy, for Toscana Saporita.

During her time at ICE and the Natural Gourmet, Allen wrote curriculum for the professional and recreational programs. While living in New York, Allen was a member of the New York Association of Culinary Teachers, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, where she attained a Certified Culinary Professional rating.

International cuisines are Allen’s passion and she has traveled around the world to learn about food and cooking.  Allen owned a restaurant and cooking school, catering business, and has worked as a freelance writer for various publications. In Michigan Allen has taught for a decade at Chateau Chantal Winery Cooking School on Old Mission Peninsula and Michigan and Northwestern Michigan College, both in Traverse City, Michigan. She is the author of the culinary textbook Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques.

Allen currently works as a cook at an organic farm, and as a cooking teacher and freelance writer. She is working on a cookbook featuring seasonal farm food. Allen lives in Leelanau County in northern Michigan along the glacial moraines of Lake Michigan.