Pork-and-Rice-Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
Why I Love This Recipe
I know! This recipe ~ both its ingredients list and method ~ looks impossibly long and complicated. But it's not, I promise. Though I have eaten them my whole life on family feast days, until recently I had never made cabbage rolls on my own and was intimidated to do so. The process was, in fact, quite easy (though time-consuming), but my goal here is to provide detailed instructions in the method that help you visualize what you're going to be doing before you even get into the kitchen.
I'll admit to taking liberties with grandma's original recipe, and even used some of the spices and herbs suggested in a recipe by Romanian cookbook author Nicolae Klepper. I opt for savoy cabbage rather than traditional smooth green cabbage because it's easier to roll. I use basmati rice owing to its quick cooking time ~ no chance it will retain any crunch in the final product. Our family cabbage rolls were almost always meatless, made with rice and mushrooms, but I've not only added ground pork but also layered the rolls with smoked side bacon, which adds tremendous flavour. And while grandma fermented her heads of cabbage in advance to give the dish a beautiful sour note (a step that distinguishes Romanian cabbage rolls from others), I've simply used sauerkraut itself to achieve some of that pleasant sourness.
Finally, remember never to eat the rolls the day you make them. Wait until at least the day after, when the flavours have had a chance to truly blend. Most Eastern European families, including ours, will make their rolls well in advance of a holiday and freeze them until needed.
Ingredients You'll Need
1 head savoy cabbage (about 3 pounds)
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large yellow cooking onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup basmati rice
1/2 cup hot stock of your choice, or hot water
1 pound cremini mushrooms, wiped and finely diced
2 pounds ground pork
1/4 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons dried red chile flakes
2 teaspoons fine-grain sea salt
freshly cracked black pepper to taste
1 28- or 32-ounce jar sauerkraut, drained
1/2 pound smoked side bacon, sliced paper-thin
1 48-ounce can tomato juice
3 cups water
4 bay leaves
sour cream or plain yogurt and freshly chopped dill for garnish
1. Prepare the cabbage leaves: Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Meanwhile, remove 3 or 4 of the outer leaves of the cabbage. Wash and set them aside. Using a sharp utility knife, cut the core out of the cabbage to about half the depth of the head. (Don’t worry if you can’t get it out in one piece; keep working at it and cut it out bit by bit if necessary.) Wash the cored cabbage. When water is boiling, blanch the reserved outer leaves for about 2 minutes; remove them carefully from the pot with tongs, drain, pat dry, and reserve for covering the finished rolls as they bake. Next, lower the entire head of cabbage, hole-side-down, into the boiling water. After about 1 minute, some of the outermost leaves will pull away from the head and float; remove them from the pot, pat dry, and set aside. After 1 additional minute, remove the entire cabbage head to a clean surface. Gently pull away the whole leaves from the head that come off easily, and, as with the others, pat them dry and set aside. Return cabbage head to the boiling water to again blanch it briefly before removing to peel off any leaves that remain attached. Repeat this process until all leaves at least the size of your palm (about 3 inches by 3 inches) have been removed and patted dry.
2. Make the filling: Heat 2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and fry until it is translucent and golden, about 5–7 minutes. Add garlic and fry 1 minute more. Add rice and fry until it is well coated with oil and begins to turn translucent around the edges. Add stock and turn down the heat to low. Simmer about 5 minutes, until rice has absorbed all the liquid. Remove mixture from the heat and let cool completely. Meanwhile, in another skillet, heat 1 Tablespoon of the remaining olive oil over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and fry until they have released all their moisture and have browned. Remove from heat and let cool. While onion-rice mixture and mushrooms are cooling, in a large bowl mix together with your hands the pork, dill, thyme, salt, chile flakes, and black pepper. Add cooled onion-rice mixture and mushrooms and mix again until all ingredients are evenly distributed.
3. Prepare the roaster and assemble the rolls: Spread the remaining 2 Tablespoons olive oil in the bottom of a large roaster or casserole (at least a 7-quart capacity). Spread the bottom of the roaster with 1/3 of the sauerkraut and layer 1/3 of the smoked bacon on top. Take one cabbage leaf and place it on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife (a boning knife works well), shave down the thick centre vein so that the whole leaf is of uniform thickness. Turn the leaf if necessary so that the its base is pointing towards you. Place about 1–2 teaspoons (depending on size of leaf) of filling near the base, and press lightly to flatten it a bit. Fold the right side of the leaf over to cover the filling and then start rolling the leaf up, tucking in the left side of the leaf to seal the roll. Place the finished roll seam-side-down in the roaster. Continue making rolls until the bottom of the roaster is covered. Spread another 1/3 of sauerkraut and bacon on top of rolls and then make another layer. Repeat with final 1/3 sauerkraut and bacon and a third layer of cabbage rolls.
4. Prepare the sauce and bake: Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, mix together the tomato juice and water. Pour over rolls in the roaster. The liquid should reach the top layer of cabbage rolls; pour in more water to reach the required level, if necessary. Tuck the bay leaves down the sides of the pot. Cover the top layer of rolls with the reserved whole cabbage leaves, overlapping them to fit. Cover the roaster with a lid and place in the preheated oven to bake for 1-1/2 hours. Remove the lid and bake for 1/2 hour more. Serve the rolls with a little sour cream or plain yogurt and a sprinkling of fresh dill.