Many cultures cherish stuffed cabbage and this recipe is a hybrid of many of them from my experiences. Cabbage rolls are common in European, Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisine, but this recipe features the addition of rice which is how my friend's family from Serbia prepares them and how I’ve grown to like them prepared. I will vary the seasonings and fillings based on what we’re growing at the farm and what’s in season. We’ve featured these at our Three Sacks pop-up dinners and they are always a big hit.
Serve 2-3 rolls per person alongside lentils or other beans, a fresh salad, and swirl a little yogurt into the braising liquid with each serving and you’ll have a very nice dinner. I hope you enjoy it!
- Michael Tsai
1 head of napa cabbage
½ lb ground pork*
½ lb ground lamb*
Spices (2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoons of black pepper, 1 teaspoon of coriander, 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds, 1 allspice berry)
1 teaspoon of dried ground chilis (like espelette, Lady Choi, etc)
Two sprigs of mint, anise hyssop, and chinese celery or herbs of your choice
1 head of green garlic
¼ cup of vinegar, white wine, pickling liquid, or other acid in your fridge
1 tablespoon of salt
⅓ - ½ cup rice (preferably sushi, arborio, or other white short grain rice)
1-2 cups of mushroom or veggie stock (it needs to almost cover your rolls)
½ cup of marinara or crushed tomatoes
*for a vegetarian option: create 2 cup mixture of crumbled tofu, lentils and rice, or a mixture of mushrooms would all work very well in place of the meat.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
Prepare the leaves
Cut the bottom off of the cabbage where the leaves attach. We grow and use mini kisaku Napa cabbage (don’t let “mini” confuse you, it’s still large!), but any large-leaved cabbage will do. Separate the large outer cabbage leaves (there should about 6-8 of them) and leave the tight inner leaves intact and use for another purpose (or you can combine two of them to make a roll).
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Submerge the leaves for about 10 seconds then set aside. They will cook more in the braise, we just want them to be pliable to roll.
Prepare the filling
Using spices out of a jar will add flavor, but using freshly toasted and ground spices are how chefs take a dish up a notch.
Combine the black peppercorns, coriander, fennel, and allspice berry and toast them over medium heat until just fragrant (do not toast the bay leaves).
Let cool, then add spices and two bay leaves to a grinder (a coffee grinder works or pound them with a mortar and pestle). Add ground spices to meat.
Next, add finely chopped fresh herbs to the meat mixture. We grow a variety of herbs on our farm and like to use what’s in season. I have mint, Chinese celery, and anise hyssop which all go beautifully with lamb. Save the stems to add to the braising liquid.
Add veggies and acid. Slice your garlic and pound it with a mortar and pestle (save the long strands of the garlic for the braising liquid). Scrape garlic into meat mixture. Add your acid (vinegar, wine, etc) to the mortar and clean out any remaining garlic and juice and add all to the meat.
Next, grate ½ of an onion (we want the onion juice that flows from grating as it flavors the meat) and add to the meat.
Now we need to trim the stems of the cabbage so the stems all have the same thickness. We will trim them on an angle. This will help us roll the leaves and ensure an even bite (one section won’t have a thick stem.
Save the trimmed stems, finely chop them and add them to the meat mixture.
Next, add one egg (one egg is sufficient for up to 2 lbs of meat if you’re making a larger portion) and about a tablespoon of salt to the meat, and the rice.
Mix the meat with the seasonings, vegetables, and egg.
*Chef tip: It’s helpful to test the flavor of your stuffing. Make a little meat patty the size of a quarter or so (BEFORE you add the rice) and cook it on low heat to mimic the heat and texture of the cabbage rolls (the meat won’t be browned in the roll, so don’t brown it here or the flavors won’t match). Once the patty is cooked through, test to see if the flavor is seasoned to your liking. If it tastes a little on the salty side, remember that we will be adding rice to the meat and that will tame the salt a bit more.
If you’re pleased with your test patty, add the rice and mix into the meat mixture.
Roll the Leaves
Gather the meat mixture, the boiled leaves, a cutting board or workspace, and an 8”-12” oven-safe pan or dish with a lid or foil.
In the pan or dish, lay the stems from the herbs, the onion skins, the garlic leaves, etc. These all add more flavor to the braising liquid.
Take one leaf and add three tablespoons or so of the meat mixture. You can place the meat along the spine of the stem or perpendicular to the stem, the cabbage leaf will roll both ways. Tuck in the top and bottom ends first and then roll the leaf around the meat. It’s okay if a little bit of meat is still visible. Place the roll seam side down in the pan.
Repeat for all the rolls.
Add Braising Liquid and Bake
Add the stock to the pan, pouring over the rolls and filling the pan until half up the rolls.
Spoon the tomato sauce over the rolls.
Cover the pan/dish and place in the oven and bake for 20-30 minutes. Taste the broth 20-30 minutes into cooking to ensure the broth has enough salt.
After 20 minutes of cooking, turn the oven down to 350 for the last 40 minutes of cooking.