I’ve tried and tried over the years to duplicate my mom’s cabbage rolls, but despite the relative simplicity of the dish, I just haven’t been able to pull it off. If I didn’t end up with crunchy rice, the seasoning would be off, or the cabbage would be unpleasantly tough. Since our produce haul from last weekend’s farmers’ market was a bit on the paltry side, I’ve had to plan meals around what we have on hand, and last night, that head of cabbage that had been hanging out in the crisper for almost too long was calling my name.
After a quick phone call with Mom to check in with respect to the weather we were expecting and to get a bit of guidance about dinner, I got things rolling. To address the rice issue, I decided to partially cook some before adding it to my ground meat mixture. I boiled about a half cup of uncooked rice in double the amount of water, just until it was translucent at the edges, then I drained off the excess water and spread the rice out to cool. I crumbled about a pound of Bobolink’s suckled veal in a big mixing bowl (Mom uses ground beef, but we were out), and added kosher salt, plenty of freshly ground pepper, and a minced shallot to the mix. I added a good amount of dried marjoram next along with the cooled rice, and combined everything well with my hands.
Next I trimmed the cabbage and separated out some leaves. Since I had a smallish head of cabbage, it was relatively easy to scale down the dish; I think I pulled off a dozen or so leaves to blanch, which would be plenty to feed the two of us with a reasonable amount of leftovers. I dipped the leaves a few at a time into a pot of boiling salted water, then set them aside on towels until they were cool enough to handle. I mounded spoonfuls of my meat mixture in the middle of each leaf, wrapped up the sides and rolled them into little bundles, securing them with bamboo picks (our box of toothpicks has gone missing).
I placed my bundles into a lightly oiled Dutch oven, then covered them with some thawed roasted tomato sauce from the freezer, seasoning that with salt, garlic, a splash of white vermouth and more marjoram. I lidded up the pot, brought it to a boil, then reduced the heat to a simmer and let the cabbage rolls cook until the filling was fully cooked and the cabbage wrappers meltingly soft and translucent. At that point I pulled them out and placed them on a plate, covered them with foil, and reduced the sauce down a bit until it was thick and rich.
Mom always served cabbage rolls with buttery mashed potatoes, and I did the same, ladling plenty of sauce all around. These were not my mama’s cabbage rolls, but they were pretty darned tasty – at any rate, they’ll have to do until I can indulge in the real deal again.