My German grandmother, known best to me as Oma, never made me her recipe for stuffed cabbage rolls, though I’ve probably eaten them a hundred times. We usually visited my grandparents in summertime, and stuffed cabbage rolls–filled with bacon, beef and rice and slow-braised in tomatoes and sauerkraut–are best saved for chilly winter nights.
My mom still makes them almost every year using the same stained, handwritten recipe that Oma dictated to her over 30 years ago. I didn’t start making them until I moved back to Chicago after college, and I haven’t actually written the recipe down until now. In the past, I would simply call Mom and announce, “I’m making Oma’s stuffed cabbage.” “Hold on, Marge. Let me find the recipe,” she’d say. I think I just like hearing her dictate the way Oma always made it.
Even though stuffed cabbage rolls are common throughout Eastern Europe, they’re the perfect expression of the type of woman my grandmother was–resourceful, labor-intensive, warm and tidy, with a slight bite. Whenever I make them, I picture her hovering over my shoulder scolding me gently for putting too much tomato in the sauce.
Be warned: There’s a fair amount of prep in this recipe, which will take about 45 minutes and an assortment of different sized pans. But after that, the ingredients, the pot and the heat do the rest.
Stuffed cabbage rolls
from my Oma
1/2 cup white rice
Salt, as needed
1 medium head cabbage
3-4 strips bacon, diced 1/4 inch
1 teaspoon butter
1 medium yellow onion
Pepper, to taste
2 pounds ground beef, 85% lean
1 pound sauerkraut
1 14-ounce can tomato sauce
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
Method: Bring 1 cup water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the rice, and cook for about 10 minutes, until cooked about halfway through (it will cook the rest of the way inside the cabbage rolls). Drain off any excess water and dump the rice into a large bowl.
While the rice is cooking, heat a large pot two-thirds full of salted water until boiling. Carefully add the whole head of cabbage and boil for 5 minutes. Remove, and immediately plunge into a large bowl of ice water for 30 seconds, turning constantly, to stop the cooking process. Set on paper towels to drain.
Cut the bacon into 1/4-inch dice, and place it in a cold skillet with a large pat of butter. Turn the heat up to medium, and slowly render the bacon until slightly brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the onion and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute until the onion is softened and slightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add the onions and bacon to the rice mixture. Then add the ground beef, eggs, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Puncture the yolks, and mix everything together until evenly incorporated.
To assemble the cabbage rolls, pull one cabbage leaf off at a time and place it on the cutting board with the inside facing up and the root end closest to you. (I used 12 leaves from a fairly large head of cabbage in this recipe.)
Place a few tablespoons of the beef mixture in the center of the leaf. Fold each side in toward the center so they’re overlapping. Don’t worry if there are a few rips in the cabbage leaves. Everything will come together when it cooks.
Roll forward and away from you, tucking in the sides as you go like you’re rolling up a burrito.
Set the rolls seam side down on a sheet tray, and repeat until you’ve used up all the filling. If there is only a little cabbage left, chop it up finely and toss it in the pot with the cabbage rolls. Otherwise, seal it in an airtight container and put it in the fridge.
Place a 5-quart Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot on the stove. Cover the bottom with a layer of sauerkraut (and extra chopped cabbage if you have it), then a layer of cabbage rolls. Season with salt and pepper. Repeat this process until all the cabbage rolls are nestled inside the pot.
Pour the tomato sauce and diced tomatoes over everything. Fill the tomato sauce can with water and pour that over the rolls as well. Top with a little more sauerkraut and season again with salt and pepper.
Turn the heat on medium, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Turn the heat down to low (the pot should be lightly bubbling), and allow the cabbage rolls to cook for 2 hours until the meat is cooked through and the cabbage leaves are tender.
To serve, place 2 rolls in a shallow bowl or on a plate. Top with a few ladles of the sauerkraut tomato sauce. Serves 6.
Note: Stuffed cabbage rolls freeze beautifully. Place the cooked cabbage rolls and a few spoonfuls of sauce in airtight containers in the freezer up to 3 months. The day you’re ready to eat them, put them in the fridge 8 hours ahead to thaw, then reheat them gently over medium low on the stove.