First, a confession: Stuffed cabbage rolls did not become a Family Dish until recently. Very recently. Like, last week. In fact, before then I had never made stuffed cabbage rolls and had never had a reason to do so, as I had never particularly enjoyed them the few times I had eaten them. They were always, always bland and vaguely sulfurous and filled with gnarly, flavorless bits of ground beef and rice.
Then I came home from the farmers market with a rather large head of Savoy cabbage. I planned to use some of it to test a recipe for braised cabbage. But it was a big head, verging on four pounds. And there was something about those broad, beautifully crinkled, deep-green outer leaves. It seemed a shame to shred them.
Coincidentally, I happened across a recipe for Sweet and Smoky Cabbage Rolls With Lamb and Tomato, from “Not Your Mother’s Casseroles,” by Faith Durand. This is a wonderfully utilitarian book from the “Not Your Mother” series. It has no photos beyond the cover, but lots of really good recipes that essentially reinvent the one-dish meal. The words “sweet and smoky” convinced me to give the cabbage rolls a try. I’m glad I did.
Durand’s stuffed cabbage recipe calls for ground lamb rather than beef, a smart substitution as lamb has more flavor and pairs nicely with cabbage. The browned meat is mixed with onion and garlic, rice, tomatoes, plus brown sugar, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. There’s also a generous hit of smoked paprika stirred into the filling, which, to my mind, makes the dish. It’s deliciously warm and assertive and smoky. And it truly is a one-dish meal, hearty and satisfying but not heavy. I served it with crusty whole-grain bread.
(Durand uses Napa cabbage in her recipe. It’s not as sturdy as green or Savoy cabbage, which allows you to skip the step of blanching the leaves; she flattens them gently with a rolling pin until they are pliable enough to roll. But because I had all that Savoy cabbage, I went ahead and blanched the leaves in boiling water.)
See the recipe on the next page.
Domenica Marchetti is the author of “The Glorious Pasta of Italy” (Chronicle, June 2011) as well as “The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy” (Chronicle, 2006) and “Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style” (Chronicle 2008). She blogs at DomenicaCooks.com.
MAKE AHEAD: This savory one-dish meal can be assembled (unbaked) and refrigerated up to 1 day in advance.
In the oven, the cabbage rolls lose their bright-green hue and become tender and mellow, absorbing the flavors of both the sauce and the filling to transform into plump, savory bundles.
8 large whole outer leaves Napa or Savoy cabbage, plus 6 cups chopped cabbage
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 pound ground lamb
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
28 ounces canned, diced, no-salt-added tomatoes, with their juices
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 cup cooked white rice
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)
Use nonstick cooking oil spray to lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
If you’re using Napa cabbage, use a rolling pan to gently flatten the 8 outer leaves until they are pliable. If you’re using Savoy cabbage, blanch the leaves for 2 minutes in a large pot of boiling water, then drain.
Heat a large, deep skillet or wide saucepan over medium heat. Add the butter. When it foams up, add the ground lamb and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, or until the lamb is well browned. Stir in the 6 cups of chopped cabbage and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring a few times, or until the cabbage is wilted and tender. Use a slotted spatula or spoon to transfer the lamb and cabbage to a large bowl, leaving any drippings in the skillet.
Add the onion and garlic to the skillet. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, or until the onion is translucent and fragrant.
Add the tomatoes and their juices, the brown sugar, vinegar and 1 teaspoon of salt, or to taste. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, combine the cooked rice, Worcestershire sauce, pepper and smoked paprika with the browned lamb and cabbage in the bowl. Add 1 cup of the cooked tomato mixture.
Lay a prepared cabbage leaf on a work surface with the stem end closest to you. Place about 1/2 cup of the meat mixture onto the stem end. Fold in the sides and roll up the leaf, then place the bundle, seam side down, in the prepared baking dish. Repeat with the remaining cabbage leaves and meat mixture. Top each cabbage roll with a spoonful of sauce, then ladle any remaining sauce around the cabbage rolls.
(At this point, the rolls can be covered and refrigerated for up 1 day.)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Cover the baking dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes. Uncover and let the rolls rest for 5 minutes before serving.