Grandma Viv’s Stuffed Cabbage

Sorry I took a wee break, all.  We all know rent in New York is impossible.  It’s so impossible, in fact, that I couldn’t afford to stay there between graduation and when I start firm work in November.  So…I’ve moved home to the Boston suburbs, and am now sharing a house with my dad, stepmom, and three stepsisters aged 11 to 19.  It’s full, but fun – very “Modern Family.”  There have been some tangible benefits: I finally got around digging out my grandma’s recipe box.  How’s that for history?

Going through this box was pretty funny; I found a bunch of recipes I knew my mom had given my grandma (my dad’s mom), and I wasn’t able to find the one recipe – for stuffed cabbage – for which I was actively looking.  Thankfully the mom-grandma recipe swapping went both ways, and my mom was able to send over the stuffed cabbage instructions.  I really wanted to make stuffed cabbage before it got too hot for it; today was a damp, dreary New England day, so it was a perfect time to do so.

Stuffed cabbage always had a special place in my family.  My grandmother would have a batch ready anytime I went to visit my grandparents in Palm Beach, and my dad would make up bedtime stories for me about the adventures of a pair of stuffed cabbages who came across assorted mishaps (a pair of meatballs – Rosabella and Bellocchio – were also featured to represent the Italian side of my family; sometimes there were crossovers).

This semi-mythical recipe took physical form today – with great anxiety and input from my dad, stepmom, and stepmom’s mom.  Thankfully, with three generations of cabbage lore things turned out well instead of heading into a “too many cooks” situation.  The recipe is time-consuming, but not terribly difficult.  It starts with boiling whole cabbages; I know other recipes that require one to remove cabbage leaves and then soften them…but that is now how my dad’s mom’s family does it.  And not how I do it.

As the cabbage boils, we mix up the meat stuffing.  My grandma kept it simple: just salt, pepper, onion, and rice.  I usually depart from tradition and toss in a tiny bit of cumin because I love the way it complements the tomato sauce in which the cabbages are eventually cooked.  Don’t worry about the raw rice: the meat balls boil for a long time and the rice gets cooked in tomato and beef juices to tender deliciousness.

When the cabbage is cooked, you run it under cold water and veeeeery carefully cut the outermost leaf at the base and peel it off.  You need 16 intact leaves for this recipe, each about 5 inches in diameter. Water is added to the meat mixture to make it moist and fluffy, and to ensure the rice cooks. I bet other liquids would work too – perhaps I’ll stray even further from tradition soon and try using wine. Divide the meat into sixteen oblongs – one for each of the leaves.

To stuff the leaves, you first cut the spine out of the piece of cabbage, then place one meatball in the end )where the leaf forms a kind of pocket).

The cut ends of the leaf are folded over so a kind of triangular pocket is formed. Press the whole thing gently in your hands so the leaf adheres to the meat. Then place the stuffed cabbage, seam side down, in the bottom of a large pot. As you make cabbage rolls, nestle them together quite closely.

You should wind up with a couple of layers. I like to chop up any extra cabbage and put it on top to round out my meal. The whole thing is drowned in tomato sauce. My grandmother always used Hunt’s canned sauce, but I’ve found that fresh-made sauce yields lovely (if slightly less nostalgic) results.

Stuffed Cabbage (Makes 16 rolls)
1 large (3 lb.) cabbage or two small ones
2 lb. ground beef
1 large onion, chopped fine
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cumin
Fresh-ground pepper to taste
1/2 c. water
5 tbsp. raw rice

For sauce:
1 recipe Simple Tomato Sauce (see below) or 2 15-oz. cans Hunt’s tomato sauce
1 can tomato paste
1 c. water
2 tbsp. brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the cabbage and cook for 30-40 minutes.
2. While the cabbage is boiling, use your hands to thoroughly mix the meat, onion, salt, pepper, rice, cumin, and water.
3. Drain the cabbage at the end of its cooking time and run it under cold water to cool the outer leaves. Use a small knife to cut the base of the outermost leaf, and very carefully separate the whole leaf from the cabbage. Repeat (running under cool water as necessary, as inner leaves may still be hot) until the leaves reach a diameter smaller than 5 or 6 inches. You should have at least 16 leaves; set them aside and reserve the heart of the cabbage.
4. Divide the meat mixture into 16 oblong balls. Taking one leaf at a time, cut out the spine of the leaf (leaving a v-shaped gap), place a meatball in the pocket-like end of the leaf, and roll the cabbage up to cover the meat. Place the cabbage roll seam side down in the bottom of a large, deep pot, and repeat until all leaves and meatballs have been used.
5. Take the cabbage hearts, remove the stems, and chop the remaining leaves into 3/4-inch pieces. Sprinkle these pieces on top of the layered cabbage rolls.
6. Mix the sauce ingredients (tomato sauce, paste, sugar, water) and pour over the chopped cabbage and stuffed cabbages. Bring the liquid to a boil, then cover and cook for an hour and a half.
7. Partially (or fully) remove the lid at the end of this time and cook for about 20 minutes to reduce the sauce if it’s still a little watery. Poke any clumps of chopped cabbage leaves to break them up and ensure even cooking. Serve hot.

Simple Tomato Sauce
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 medium onion, chopped fine
1 28-oz. can whole plum tomatoes
1/4 tsp. thyme or oregano
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over a medium flame. Toss in the garlic and onion and cook until the onion turns translucent (but before it turns yellow).
2. Add the tomatoes and spices, and crush the tomatoes with a potato ricer, or with the back of a large spoon.
3. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.