Polish stuffed cabbage (golabki, or little pigeons, pronounced, basically, Guh-WUMP-kee) was never a favorite of mine growing up. I don’t particularly like the mixture of ground beef, rice, and sweet tomato sauce — often ketchup — in the funky steamed cabbage that forms the roll. It is rarely seasoned properly, so it lacks salt and flavor, and with its yellow-grey leaves and smear of orange sauce is just about the ugliest thing to emerge from a pot ever. And the name is vaguely horrifying.
But, I reasoned, if a dish has survived generations across an entire continent, it should have a good reason to continue. I do like meatballs, and I do like cabbage, and I do like the Greek dolma stuffed grape leaf filling with lemon. I’d try to pull together a tomato-free version of the classic stuffed cabbage recipe, something that improved the taste and the look as much as possible.
Turns out I can’t stop eating them now. They’re surprisingly light and flavorful, and would make a great new year meal.
The beauty of stuffed cabbage is the variety of possibilities. If you can break away from your Eastern European traditions, or look more deeply into them, you’ll see that stuffed cabbage has as many flavors as Eastern Europe had geopolitical borders. And the little pigeons graciously subjugate themselves to our new emphasis on local and whole grains, too.
The basic recipe is 1 cup of rice, 1 lb. of ground beef, and an egg, with seasonings. Instead of a boring swap to brown rice, we could start with kasha or buckwheat groats (or cracked grains), a traditional substitute for rice golabki. Quinoa or couscous would be similarly mushy and appropriate. And if we go there, we could easily move over to wheatberries or rye berries or frikeh or fregola sarda for a less firm stuffing, but still very delicious.
We used black “forbidden” rice, then swapped out the ground beef for some ground veal and pork sausage I had languishing in the freezer. The pork sausage added a moistness and flavor from within.
From without, well, I had the brilliant…I’m going to go there, BRILLIANT…stroke of BRILLIANCE to use whole leaves of fall cabbage that I had fermented sauerkraut-style a few months back. These sauerkraut bombs I nestled in between rolls wrapped more conservatively with savoy cabbage, a light variation on the more traditional round cabbage leaf wrappings. When cooked in chicken broth instead of tomato sauce, it make for a tangy and delicious stuffed cabbage. Don’t have whole cabbage leaf sauerkraut? Just use regular sauerkraut, mixing some in with your filling and adding a layer or two in the cooking pot for more flavor.
If you’re meat-free, I suggest using any number of fillings to substitute for the meat. It’s perfectly traditional to use farmer cheese or potatoes or mushrooms with your rice/kasha (try this Jewish version with mushrooms, kasha, and a cream sauce). And why not lentils and chopped walnuts and carrots? Kohlrabi! Leeks! Parsnips? If you’re afraid of the filling not holding together, just add another egg. I also suggest bread crumbs to help on that score.
The decadent can skip the grains altogether. Chopped pork shoulder is divine. How about a traditional tamale stuffing of shredded pork or beef, almonds, and raisins? And think about it: do you like stuffed peppers? Same filling, so why not make an inverted stuffed pepper, and put the peppers inside the cabbage rolls? Chef Tiffany Norton at PartyCart even uses pickled ginger for her forcemeat. Why can’t you?
Yes, the world is your cabbage. You can stuff it with anything.
EDITED TO ADD: More ideas from the Queen of Preservation, Linda Ziedrich!
EDITED AGAIN TO ADD: A vegetarian Polish option from a reader, Linda Peterson Adams. Thanks, Linda! “Parboil the cabbage to remove leaves. [Mix] 2 cups cooked dry rice, pearl barley or buckwheat groats, a few tablespoons soaked and chopped fine porcini mushrooms, salt and pepper. Stuff rolls with this mix. Put a layer of leaves in a dutch oven, and add 2 cups fermented rye liquid or stock with the mushroom soaking liquid. Dot with butter. Cover and simmer until tender, about an hour. Thicken leftover liquid with beurre manie. You can also add sour cream at the end. You can also use sauerkraut to nestle the birds in in cooking.
Tangy Stuffed Cabbage Master Recipe
- 1 large head savoy cabbage
- 1 cup cooked grains (try short-grain rice, black rice, kasha, quinoa)
- 1 lb. ground meat (try a combination of beef, veal, pork, pork sausage, etc.) or 2 cups farmer cheese or sauteed wild/button mushrooms
- 1/4 cup breadcrumbs IF you are using the vegetarian fillings only
- 1 large egg
- 2-4 cups sauerkraut, chopped
- salt and pepper to taste
- paprika to taste (optional)
- 2 cups chicken broth
Cook the rice or other grains as necessary and cool.
Prepare the cabbage leaves. Heat a pot large enough to submerge whole cabbage leaves with enough water to blanch the leaves. Carefully remove the core and outer leaves, keeping the whole cabbage intact. Peel off the layers of leaves without tearing if possible, and rinse thoroughly. Reserve the inner, smaller leaves for the bottom of the pot.
Trim the thick bottom vein of each leaf by either cutting it out or shaving off layers until it is almost as thin as the surrounding leaf. (If you do not do this, it will make rolling harder.)
When the water comes to a boil, blanch the prepared leaves for about 30-45 seconds, or until pliable and easy to roll. Note: plain cabbage should be blanched longer, about 2 minutes; if you are using whole-leaf sauerkraut instead of savoy cabbage, just rinse the leaves, don’t blanch them.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and place the smallest leaves in the bottom of a dutch oven or similar large pot with a lid.
Mix up the filling. Add the cooled, cooked grains, the meat/cheese/mushrooms, a large egg, and a cup of the sauerkraut (eliminate sauerkraut if you are using whole leaf sauerkraut as a wrapping, add breadcrumbs for structure if you are using the vegetarian fillings). Drop a bit of the filling into the steaming water or the microwave for a few seconds, so it will cook enough so you can taste for seasonings. Adjust seasonings with salt, pepper, and paprika.
Roll the cabbage rolls by placing about 2 tablespoons full of filling at the thick end of the leaf, folding the end over the filling, then folding the two sides over the filling, then rolling up to the end tightly. Place seam side down into a dutch oven. Repeat for all rolls. If there is filling left, roll it into a meatball and nestle it among the rolls. Nestle the rest of the sauerkraut between rolls and between layers.
Add chicken stock, cover, and cook for about 2 hours, or until the filling is firm and most of the stock is soaked up into the cabbage rolls. Better the next day.