In the past week, we’ve gone from The Great Deluge and 50-degree weather all the way to 75-degree sunniness in the Boston area. My cooking hasn’t quite caught up, so with the (realistic) expectation that we might encounter a few more cool, wet days this month (or in May, June, July and August, since we’re being realistic) I’m sharing this little dish that I made at the height of 2010’s Great Rain Out.
It was last Tuesday, and my mother-in-law had just arrived from balmy North Carolina. I’d spent the day doing errands in advance of her arrival and the weekend’s Easter celebration, and was soaked right through, despite a knee-length rain coat and knee-high Wellies. It was the kind of raw weather that had even this born-and-bred New Englander contemplating Arizona as a more cordial clime. It was time for something to take the chill out of the bones, and I remembered this recipe, which had been a surprise hit earlier in the winter.
Anyway, when Mother-in-Law heard I was making stuffed cabbage, a funny look crossed her face. Now, this is a woman who cooks – and cooks well. And she eats things I’d never dream of eating, like fried chicken livers and smoked oysters. She is not picky, and she knows food, and we enjoy cooking and eating together. So, this was anachronistic. But, apparently, she didn’t have the fondest memories of stuffed cabbage, thanks – I think – to her own mother-in-law’s famous tendency to stew things to shades of gray.
I reassured her that I’d been similarly wary of the dish, but that I’d made this recipe before, and that it had been wolfed down by my whole nuclear family. Plus, it was based on an Ina Garten recipe, and Ina never makes something that isn’t delicious. I even make foods I know I don’t like when Ina says they taste good. More often than not, her recipes make me like things I thought I didn’t, and even if I still don’t like the food, I really wish I did.
And so I blanched the cabbage leaves, made the quick tomato sauce, mixed the filling, and hoped it would be as good as it was the first time. The rolls are very easy to assemble, and turn tender and flavorful from baking in the tomato sauce for about an hour. I served them up, fingers crossed.
She took a bite and said, “Oh, that is good!”
She had seconds.
She ate the leftovers.
She said, while not even eating them, that I had restored her faith in stuffed cabbage and that she’d have to take the recipe home with her.
And that, my friends, is high praise; I think we can consider this recipe tested, and proven.
(adapted from Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa at Home.”)
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 cup chopped yellow onions (1 onions)
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes and their juice
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 head Savoy or green cabbage, including outer leaves
For the filling:
1 pound ground beef
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onions
1/4 cup plain dried bread crumbs
1/4 cup uncooked white rice
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
For the sauce, heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the onions, and cook over medium heat until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes, vinegar, brown sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Carefully peel off the outer leaves of the cabbage, being careful to keep each leaf in one piece. Boil the leaves until they’re flexible, working in batches to make sure the leaves stay submerged. Trim out or pare down any remaining rigid veins at the base of the leaves for ease of rolling. Set the leaves aside. (Depending on the size of the leaf, you will need at least 6 to 8 leaves.)
For the filling, combine the ground chuck, eggs, onion, bread crumbs, rice, thyme, salt, and pepper. Add 1/2 cup of the sauce to the meat mixture and mix lightly with a fork.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
To assemble the rolls, place 3/4 to 1 cup of the sauce in the bottom of a large Dutch oven or a baking dish large enough to hold the rolls in a single layer. Place 1/3 to 1/2 cup of filling in an oval shape near the rib edge of the leaf and roll up toward the outer edge, tucking in the sides as you roll. Place the cabbage rolls, seam side down, over the sauce. Pour the remaining sauce over the cabbage rolls. Cover the dish tightly with the lid (or with parchment paper and then aluminum foil) and bake for 1 hour, or until the meat is cooked and the rice is tender. Serve hot.
Note on adaptations: Ina Garten’s recipe calls for raisins in the sauce; this probably is a nice sweet and sour treat, but I don’t enjoy cooked raisins, so I omitted them. Ms. Garten’s recipe also makes more servings, and layers the rolls and sauce, so you can definitely do it that way, too.
Note on tomatoes and foil: If you are covering the dish with foil, make sure you put something non-reactive (like parchment paper) between the sauce and the foil, since the acid in the sauce with react with the aluminum and make the whole dish taste tinny. That would not be good.