Gołąbki, Holubtsi, Niños Envueltos, محشي كرومب (Mahshi Kuronb), and ロールキャベツ (rouru kyabetsu) are just a few of the names this dish goes by, but regardless of what you call it, there's something marvelously comforting about cabbage rolls.
Recently, I was asked by a reader for my version of this global comfort food. Despite its worldwide popularity, the reader raised a good point in that most versions of this dish tend to be rather bland. In my own personal experience, I realized that I'd come to associate cabbage rolls with soggy logs of mystery meat and mushy rice where one bite tastes exactly the same as the next.
But with a reach spanning the globe from Poland and Argentina to Egypt and Japan, I knew there had to be more to this comfort food than some misplaced sense of nostalgia. That's why I set out to make these cabbage rolls not only comforting, but delicious as well. My goal was to make plump parcels of melt-in your mouth cabbage, stuffed with a flavorful meaty filling brought together by a sauce that would harmonize rather than compete against the various elements. I also wanted enough variety in texture and flavor to keep my mouth interested, bite-after-bite, until all that was left were a few smears of errant sauce on my plate.
To accomplish this, I decided to braise my rolls in the oven, it not only renders the cabbage transparently tender, the long cooking time softens the meat, avoiding the need to add fillers like bread crumbs. Because I love the idea of having something in the filling absorb the flavors of the meat and sauce, I didn't want to do away with the rice, but the problem with rice is that it tends to turn to mush when cooked in a liquid for too long.
That's why I decided to use farro, which retains its shape and texture while still absorbing all the good flavors coming from the meat and sauce. If you can't find farro or want to make this gluten-free, try parboiling another grain or seed that won't turn to mush, such as brown rice or quinoa.
Because there's no Maillard reaction happening when you're braising, and it doesn't make sense to sear the rolls before adding the liquid, I took two approaches to amping up the flavor. The first is that I boosted the flavor of the filling itself. This involved caramelizing the aromatics and adding powdered shiitake mushrooms to the filling. Adding chopped shiitake mushrooms is a common technique in the Japanese version of this dish, but if you powderize them, it adds tons of umami, without making the rolls taste overtly Asian.
The second approach was to add more flavor to the braising liquid. Instead of just tomato sauce, I used a blend of chicken stock and tomato sauce, which was seasoned with umami-rich paprika. By putting down a bed of onions, it not only keeps the rolls from scorching, it contributes to the flavor of the sauce.
Finally to keep things interesting, I serve these cabbage rolls with a dollop of crème fraîche. The mild acidity and rich creaminess adds body and variety, allowing you to have one bite with a bright tomato sauce, and the next with a lush velvety cream sauce. While these cabbage rolls are pretty tasty fresh out of the oven, they're even better the next day, so if you have the time, try making these a day in advance.
- Remove the core from the cabbage. It's important that you get as much of the core as possible, or it's going to make removing the leaves difficult in the next step. Place the head of cabbage in a pot that's just large enough to hold it. Cover the cabbage with water, add 1 tablespoon of salt, cover and bring to a boil over high heat.
- While you're waiting for the water to boil, put the farro in a strainer and rinse thoroughly.
- Once the water comes to a boil, use tongs to carefully peel off individual leaves of cabbage and place them in a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking. Once you have about 12 leaves (you want a few extra in case you tear one), remove the rest of the cabbage and set aside for another use.
- Add the rinsed farro to the water you boiled the cabbage in and cook until the grains are almost tender (but still a little al dente), about 15 minutes.
- Drain the cabbage in a strainer and let the cabbage drip dry, turning it a few times.
- In a saute pan, add the olive oil, chopped onions and garlic and saute until the onions are translucent and just starting to brown.
- Put the oven rack in the middle position and preheat to 350 degrees F.
- Spread the sliced onions along the bottom of a large dutch oven or casserole dish with a lid.
- Use a sharp knife to shave the thick stem parts of the cabbage leaves down so the leaves are a uniform thickness.
- Add the farro, sauteed onions, ground beef, ground pork, egg, parsley, salt and pepper to a bowl. Use a Microplane to grate the dried mushroom into the meat mixture.
- Put on some food-safe gloves on and knead the mixture together until you have a uniform paste.
- With the stem end of a cabbage leaf closest to you, add about 1/2 cup of filling to the edge closest to you and use your hands to form a log.
- Start rolling the cabbage from the edge closest to you.
- Once you've rolled half-way up, fold the left and right flaps towards the center to form an envelope.
- Finish rolling the cabbage and place place the roll seam-side down on top of the bed of onions. Repeat until you run out of filling.
- Put the stewed tomatoes, chicken stock, paprika and salt into a blender and blend until smooth. Pour this mixture over the cabbage rolls. Cover with a lid and bake until the cabbage is tender (about 1.5 hours).
- Serve the cabbage rolls with the tomato sauce and sour cream.