Hungarian Cabbage Rolls

I have a handful of recipes I consider the world’s greatest casseroles. They’re special, old-fashioned, dishes that cook slowly, are better the next day and need to be made in quantity. They’re the dishes to share with friends, to use for several meals and to store part in the freezer for weeks later. They’re the dishes we remember from our past but seldom see anymore. They’re the flavors from a Greek taverna, a country French bistro, a Mexican market stall, an Indian friend’s kitchen, or a grandmother’s table. They’re the culinary treasures we must not lose like Moussaka, Lamb Korma, Cassoulet, Chicken Mole and Cabbage Rolls—to name a few.

When winter’s chill invites us to share warm, stewy suppers, February’s a good time for cabbage rolls. As with many of these recipes, here’s a way to stretch a little meat a long way, filling in the spaces with lots of good-for-us vegetables. Two pounds of ground meat along with two cabbages, onions, carrots, tomatoes and herbs will make a lavish meal for 10.

The only part of the preparation that demands patience is peeling the leaves from the cabbage. Once the cabbage leaves are ready, it’s just a matter of mixing up the meat filling, rolling the burrito-shaped packages and braising them slowly over a bed of aromatic vegetables later turned into a savory paprika gravy.

Hungarian Cabbage Rolls

2 medium heads green or Savoy cabbage

3 ½ oz white rice (½ cup)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion finely chopped

2–3 cloves garlic

½ cup chopped parsley

1 ½ lbs. lean ground beef

½ lb. ground pork, or hot Italian sausage

2 eggs

8 oz. finely chopped inner cabbage (two cups)

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon dry thyme

1 teaspoon dry marjoram

freshly ground pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

Cook the rice in 6 fl. oz. water (3/4 cup) until all water is absorbed. Cool.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in small skillet and sweat chopped onion, covered with butter paper wrappers until tender. Add garlic and sauté until garlic is cooked. Onion and garlic should not brown. Cool. Add parsley.

Remove cabbage leaves for stuffing by steaming cabbage in a large pot of simmering water. While one cabbage is steaming for a few minutes, peel two or three leaves from the other cabbage and slice down the core. Repeat, successively steaming and peeling back the cabbages alternately until you have 30–34 nice sized leaves. Add extra water to the pot, bring to a boil with salt and blanch the leaves 6 at a time until wilted enough to roll. V-out the thick part of the center rib of each leaf. Reserve ribs to slice and add to braising base. Stack leaves.

In a large bowl use spread fingers to gently mix the ground meats, rice, onion mixture, eggs, chopped inner cabbage, salt, crushed thyme, marjoram, pepper and nutmeg, along with ¼ cup water. (Sauté a small amount to taste for seasonings.)

Fill cabbage leaves. Overlap rib-cut center, add scoop of filling the size of an egg or a small apple depending on the size of the cabbage leaf. Fold in the sides and roll up like a small burrito. Set the filled leaves aside and prepare the braising base:

3 oz. bacon (3–4 strips) diced or 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large (12 oz.) chopped

6 oz. (2 medium) carrots chopped

2–3 cloves garlic chopped

2 tablespoons paprika

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)

1 teaspoon marjoram

1 ½ cups crushed tomatoes + l cup water or

1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes and juice

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups chicken stock + 1  1/2 oz. roux

1/2 cup heavy cream or sour cream

lemon juice to taste

Render  fat from  bacon or heat oil; add chopped onion, carrot. Sweat to soften; add garlic, paprika, red pepper, marjoram and sauté until fragrant. Add tomatoes, reserved sliced cabbage ribs, salt and bring to a simmer.

Pour the braising base into a large covered enameled steel or cast-iron casserole or use two glass baking dishes that can be covered with foil. Arrange cabbage rolls snugly on top of flavoring base. Cover first with butter wrappers  and then top with lids or foil. Bake at 300° (for glass) or 325° for metal or ceramic for 2–2 ½ hours.

When cool enough to handle, gently remove cooked cabbage rolls from  base. Complete sauce, by combining the base with 3 cups thin chicken gravy (3 cups stock slightly thickened with 1 ½ oz. [3 tablespoons] roux). Simmer all together and correct seasonings, adding more salt if needed and juice of half a lemon. Whisk in ½ cup cream or sour cream.

Reheat cabbage rolls in the paprika sauce and serve with boiled potatoes, noodles or crusty bread.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at


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