Choux farcis

Stuffed cabbage rolls

This recipe puts a couple of French twists on my Jewish Ukrainian grandmother’s recipe for stuffed cabbage rolls. Meatballs are rolled up in blanched cabbage leaves, cooked on the stovetop for an hour in a tomato-flavored sweet-and-sour sance and then baked in the oven for another hour. This means that total preparation time is about three hours — but the results are worth it if you’re in the market for a warming winter dish.

The cabbage rolls may be made either with white cabbage or dark green Savoy cabbage. I prefer the latter on grounds of both ease of preparation and esthetics. As for the meat, this recipe uses only beef. But feel free to innovate with a mixture of beef and pork or beef and veal. The cooking liquid may also vary. My grandmother used water. I prefer homemade broth, usually chicken broth, although beef broth and veggie broth would also be fine.

My twists on the original include the addition of herbes de Provence (a mixture of dried thyme, rosemary, savory and oregano) as well as the cooking method — when making the sauce, I begin by sautéing chopped onions, garlic and shredded cabbage in olive oil, then adding the tomatoes and broth, whereas my grandmother boiled it all together.

You will need a very large, heavy-bottomed pot and a baking pan large enough to accommodate 12 cabbage rolls and their sauce. The recipe will serve 4-6 people.

1 large head of cabbage (Savoy or white)
1 pound (450 g) ground beef
2 onions, red or white (one medium and one large)
3 cloves garlic
1 egg
2 tbsp. bread crumbs
3 tsp. salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. olive oil

2 cups homemade beef broth, chicken broth, vegetable broth or water
1 can peeled tomatoes (14 ounces / 400 g)
3 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. herbes de Provence or 1/2 tsp. dried thyme

3 tbsp. sugar, preferably cassonnade or demerara
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
fresh dill or cilantro for garnish

Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add 1 tsp. salt, preferably sea salt.

While the water is heating, cut away the core of the cabbage. Remove 12 large outer leaves — they should be intact if possible. Set aside the heart of the cabbage.

Boil the 12 leaves until tender, about 5 minutes. You may need to do this in two batches. Drain through a colander.

Place the ground beef in a large bowl. Finely mince the medium onion and 1 clove garlic. Add to the beef. Add the egg, 1 tsp. salt and the breadcrumbs. Grind on some black pepper. Mix well — this is best done by going in with your hands.

Form 12 meatballs.

Set a drained cabbage leaf on a board. Cut away the bottom of the thick rib. Place a meatball in the middle of the leaf.

Fold the bottom of the leaf up over the meatball, fold in the sides and roll up. Repeat with all the meatballs.

Slice the heart of the cabbage into shreds. Chop the large onion. Mince the remaining two cloves of garlic.

In a large pot, heat 1 tbsp. olive oil to sizzling. Add the onion and garlic. Sauté for 1 minute, stirring. Add the shredded cabbage. Stir.

When the cabbage has wilted slightly, push it to one side of the pot. Add the tomatoes to the other side. Chop them up, using a wooden spatula. Stir it all together.

Add the broth or water. Add the tomato paste. Stir. Add the herbes de Provence or thyme. Add 1 tsp. salt and grind on some black pepper. Add the sugar and vinegar. Stir and taste — the sauce should be both sweet and slightly sour. Adjust the seasonings as necessary.

Gently place the cabbage rolls on top of this sauce. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for one hour. Turn off the heat.

Preheat the oven to gas mark 6 (350 F, 180 C).

With the remaining 1 tsp. olive oil, oil a large baking pan, preferably glass or ceramic.

Gently transfer the cabbage rolls to the baking pan. Spoon the sauce over them. Cover lightly with foil.

Bake for 50 minutes. Remove the foil. Continue baking for another 10 minutes.

Serve piping hot in shallow bowls, garnished with dill or cilantro. Serves 4-6.

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