Stuffed Cabbage

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I won’t sugar-coat this: Stuffed cabbage is just about the unsexiest thing in the history of unsexy things. It’s not colorful. It’s not texturally interesting. And it’s made of cabbage (duh), a vegetable whose very name connotes drab listlessness and smelly farts. (I’m not going to say that the word itself always makes me think of Austin Powers… but I’m also not not going to say that.)

But if you think about it, you might just realize that stuffed cabbage has all the makings of a trendy farm-to-table mainstay. It’s a classic comfort food; it’s appealingly old-school and fairly labor-intensive; it features a cruciferous vegetable, albeit one much less fashionable than brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, or the almighty kale.

Also, I think it might technically be Paleo — although I refuse to confirm that by actually looking up what things count as Paleo.

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So let’s do it, gang — let’s make these weird little meat brains the talk of the town. With our powers combined, hell, stuffed cabbage could be a Thing. It could be bigger than meatballs! Wait a minute: stuffed cabbage is meatballs. Whoa. Whoa.

This is happening.

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Stuffed Cabbage; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own

1/2 lb. ground beef [So naturally, this recipe appears in the vegetable section of Nonnie’s cookbook]
1 onion, chopped finely
1 tablespoon uncooked rice [I used Arborio]
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 egg
Salt and pepper

Mix above ingredients together and set aside.

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1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 cup brown sugar [A.K.A. too much brown sugar. I think you need some sweetness here to cut through the sauerkraut, but I’m going to slash the amount by half or more the next time I make stuffed cabbage]
1 small can tomato sauce
1 small can sauerkraut [Behold, above, the only canned sauerkraut I could find. I’ve got a feeling that the jarred stuff is probably better]
1 large can tomatoes
1/4 cup lemon juice
[Oh, and Nonnie doesn’t include this in the ingredient list for some reason, but: Duh, you’ll need a head of cabbage. I used Savoy.]

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Sauté onion lightly in hot oil. Add remaining ingredients, mix well; cover, and simmer gently while preparing cabbage. Be sure to crush or chop tomatoes.

Core, carefully, one large head cabbage. [Guess what: This is a lot harder than it seems like it should be! I sawed away at the center of my cabbage for what felt like forever, cutting an angled circle with a paring knife in an attempt to get rid of the core without messing up the shape of the leaves. Results were… mixed.

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Next time, I’d probably just cut the damn thing in two and remove the core from each half, which would certainly be easier than this.]

Place cabbage in a colander and pour boiling water over it. Leaves should separate easily. If not, pour more boiling water over cabbage. Separate leaves gently so as not to tear them. [Yeah, no, this hardly works at all. If you pour the boiling water on top of the cabbage, you’ll get only a few leaves that separate easily while the rest remain totally raw.

If you pour the boiling water into the bottom of the cabbage — into the hole where the core used to be, provided you used the hacksaw coring method — you’ll have slightly better results. But even though the leaves will separate from each other, they still won’t be nearly flexible enough to fold around a meatball without tearing.]

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So instead, I went with Option C: separating the leaves, then using tongs to dip each one into a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds or so, long enough for the leaves to turn bright green and pliable. A little tedious, but it worked.]

With a sharp knife, gently remove as much of vein as possible without cutting or tearing leaf. [How… do you remove the center vein without cutting or tearing the leaf? Trick question; you can’t, dummy.

Because my leaves were enormous, though, and because Nonnie has you tuck only a little bit of filling into each one, I took the liberty of simply removing the center vein from each one and dividing what remained in two — each of which was the perfect size for holding a tablespoon of meat.]

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 Place 1 tablespoon of meat mixture in center of each leaf, and roll leaf, tucking in ends. [Like a little burrito!] 

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Place rolls in pan with simmering sauce. Repeat process until all of meat mixture and larger leaves are used. Shred remaining cabbage and add to sauce. [Given the size of my pan, and the open question of whether it would hold all the sauce PLUS all the extra shredded cabbage PLUS all the rolls themselves, I added the shredded excess to the sauce before I nestled the rolls in there. Which I’d recommend; it’s a lot easier to stir before you add in a bundle of little dumplings that could spring open at the slightest provocation.

Oh, and everything ended up fitting — but just barely.]

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Cover and simmer gently 2-3 hours. [I went with 2; that was plenty.] Taste sauce and add more brown sugar and/or lemon juice if needed. [If you think it needs more sugar, I can only assume you’re some sort of sentient hummingbird.]

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The verdict: This stuffed cabbage definitely puts the “sweet” in “sweet and sour.” But you know what? It ended up far exceeding my expectations, especially for a dish that relies so heavily on things that come from a can.

Cut the sugar down, and you’ve got a surprisingly well-balanced meal — sweetness from the cabbage (and, yes, added sweetener), acidity from the lemon and tomato, a nice bite from the sauerkraut, the deep, savory richness of a long-simmered tomato sauce.

I might add more rice to the meat mixture in order to spread it a bit farther — I ended up with 24 rolls, which easily enough for 6 servings if you factor in the sauce and a carby side dish (recommended: egg noodles), but I was also left with more excess cabbage than I wanted to be.

Overall, though, I’d recommend trying this one out before spring truly arrives and kills your desire for hearty, slow-cooked, potentially trendy Eastern European comfort food. Which, given the way the weather’s progressing in New York, might just be never.

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