stuffed cabbage rolls
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One thing you need to know about stuffed cabbage rolls, a Polish dish of golabki: it’s not the inordinately massive job that it seems. Stuffing steamed cabbage leaves with a mix of parboiled rice and pork mince is really easy. And the oven braised cabbage rolls with tomato sauce and freshly made mashed potatoes are a proper comfort food feast.
Mankind has always had a predilection to wrapping little bits of food in leaves. I expect it comes from the hunter-gatherer (or rather the cooker-preparer who sat in the cave) who was trying to save some for later and there was no cling film. Who subsequently discovered that those bits of food are even nicer if cooked in those leafy parcels? Who knows? I am more and more convinced these days that all recipes always come from the need to make food stretch or last longer. You didn’t need a recipe to put an ox on the spit, did you?
The outer packaging depends on what’s at hand – or grows on the tree outside. Banana, bamboo or betel leaves in some places, grape or fig in others and cabbage for the northern unfortunates. The filling is very frequently rice-based, in the Far East, naturally, but surprisingly also in Sweden, Ukraine and New Zealand. If there’s meat in the mix, it’s meant to feed many with little; if it’s vegetables or seafood, the leaves provide protection from excessive heat and preserve succulence and flavours.
These are stuffed cabbage rolls which in my house go by the name of pigeons. Golubki (or spelled properly with all the squiggles: golabki) literally means ‘little pigeons’ or ‘little doves’ in Polish. I honestly don’t know whether I’m right thinking it’s because they look like little sleeping birds all curled up, heads tucked underneath the wings but I have never called them other than pigeons. When I first made them in England, years ago, nobody wanted to eat them but I think it was more in response to my cooking skills back then; also I wanted to please too hard and made the filling almost entirely of meat. When I made them again a couple of years ago for a New Year’s Eve gathering, everyone hoovered them up and looked for more.
I don’t really like the ‘traditional’ stamp that is made authoritatively on ethnic dishes – I’ve eaten lots of pigeons (I’ll stick to the name until it catches on widely) back in Poland and I know every cook has their own variations. White cabbage, savoy cabbage, rice, buckwheat, precooked, raw, sear them before braising, cook on the hob, bake in oven, tomato sauce or nothing – let no Italians ever tell me again that there is only one gold standard recipe for ragù Bolognese.
This is my way then, with savoy cabbage, parboiled brown rice, oven baked in tomato sauce. I don’t think it’s the BEST! EVER! but it’s how I like them. See if you do too…
stuffed cabbage rollsServings: 4-6Time: 2 hours
- 1 head of savoy cabbage
- For the filling:
- 150g brown rice
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- 450g (1 pound) minced pork
- ½ bunch flat parsley, finely chopped
- ½ bunch dill, finely chopped
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp caraway seeds, ground in pestle and mortar
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp dried marjoram
- For the braise:
- 1 tbsp. concentrated beef stock (or 1 cube)
- 1 tin chopped tomatoes
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 100-200ml boiling water
1. Remove the dark, outer cabbage leaves and reserve, you’ll need at least 2-3 for lining the dish. Cut out the core with a small knife and place the cabbage in a large microwavable bowl with a little water. Microwave on full power for 3 minutes. Peel off the loosened, wilted leaves, make another incision round the core if necessary and return the cabbage into the microwave. Continue until you have dismembered the whole head into leaves.
2. Rinse the rice several times. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, add the rice and cook for 15 minutes. It will still be very much al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water.
3. Heat the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add half the chopped onions, half the chopped garlic and cook until soft but not coloured.
4. Place the pork mince in a large bowl. Add the drained rice, cooked onion and garlic, raw onion and garlic, parsley, dill, salt, pepper and the other seasonings and mix it all very well, best using your hands.
5. Prepare a large oven dish, preferably with a lid, and line it with half the reserved cabbage leaves.
6. Working on a chopping board with one leaf at a time, trim the thick stem in the middle of the leaf. Place a tablespoon of the filling in the middle of the leaf, fold the sides over it and roll tightly from the base of the leaf towards the edge. Place in the prepared dish. Continue with the rest of the leaves or filling – whichever comes first - tucking all the rolls snugly in the dish.
7. Preheat the oven to 140C/275F/gas 1. Prepare the braising liquid in a jug by mixing all the ingredients and topping with boiling water. Pour it over the rolls; they should be just about covered but no more. Cover them with any remaining reserved outer leaves or a piece of aluminium foil, cover with the lid or another sheet of foil and transfer to the oven.
8. Bake for 2 hours, checking if the liquid has not cooked off. Let them stand for a few minutes before serving, with mashed potatoes or crusty bread. They are even better reheated on the next day, if there are any left over.