I think about food an awful lot. Like, I think about food what foods I shouldn’t eat, and what food I’d like to eat immediately, and food that was really amazing and I’d like to recreate, and food that I made that was kind of a failure, and…food in general, really. You know how people say that scents can be memory triggers and can tie you closely to a person, or a place, or an emotion? Well, food is like that for me.
Sometimes I think about how, when my parents wanted to go out and my grandparents would babysit us, my grandpa would make us scrambled eggs with ham (and then I get sad, because I really missed getting to know him as an adult). And my other grandpa would always buy yesterday’s donuts at the grocery store and microwave them, and they were far superior to any fresh donuts (he’s blessedly still with us, so that’s such a happy memory). When drive in movies used to be more prevalent, my parents would load us all up in the station wagon with blankets and pillows and homemade frosted brownies- those always taste like summer time and friendship to me.
After Evan’s grandma passed away last year we happened to sign up for a pasta making class, and Evan shared some memories from his childhood- his family would come to his grandparents house for dinner and they would feast on her sauce that she cooked all day, using whatever meat was on sale. I love hearing these sweet memories, and I was happy that we could carry on her legacy on some small way- even if the pasta we were making that day was a far cry from Grandma D’s sauce.
Similarly, a few months ago I was sitting with my grandma and her sister; my grandma has had some health scares lately, so I try to soak up any time I can with her. Conversation wandered to the topic of food, as it tends to do, and Grandma and my Aunt Julie started talking about the kinds of food their mom used to make. Aunt Julie mentioned that cabbage rolls had made a regular appearance in their childhood home- much to the clear distaste of my grandmother 🙂 I’ve never had cabbage rolls, nor desired to make them, but I’m really feeling compelled lately to make food that ties me to family, or to memories of family. So, armchair psychoanalyze me if you must, but today I have for you a recipe for Sweet and Tangy Cabbage Rolls.
To be clear, I’ve never made nor eaten cabbage rolls before I embarked on this mission. As such, I’ve relied on recipes sources from all over the internet, particularly this recipe and commentary from Mark Bittman, this recipe that involves gingersnaps from Spicy Southern Kitchen (though I didn’t actually use gingersnaps, and this recent post from Bev Cooks (who I only recently stumbled upon, but really adore). This recipe wasn’t necessarily a fast one (it look about 30 minutes to assemble and another hour to bake) but it was pretty easy, and I imagine that you could make it ahead of time and just bake when you needed it. From the perspective of a cabbage roll skeptic…it was actually really delicious! Evan and I have been eating leftovers this week, and they’re so, so good! Evan also suggested that this is a meal that he’s like to make at the firehouse, so take that however you choose, but I see it as a stamp of approval 🙂
Sweet and Tangy Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
1 head napa cabbage
1 medium yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
1 pound meatloaf mix (or ground beef or pork, but I love to use meatload mix for things like this)
1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp parsley
1 tsp thyme
½ cup jasmine rice (or whatever you have on hand- I had jasmine, and Bev said it was okay)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
Salt and Pepper
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 14 oz can tomato puree
Prepare the cabbage leaves: put a pot of water on to boil, and slice the bottom two-ish inches from the cabbage. You should be able to peel apart the leaves now, so separate about 20 of them. What we’re trying to do, here, is soften the leaves so they roll nicely without breaking. To make that happen, bring the water to a boil, then submerge each leaf for about 30 seconds to one minute. I did six or so leaves at a time so, once the water was boiling, this step only took about two minutes. Remove the leaves from the water and drain on a towel, and set aside.
Prepare the sauce: Dice the onion and mince the garlic. In a pan over medium heat, melt the butter in the oil and add the onions. Cook for about five minutes, or until the onions are nice and soft and translucent. Season with kosher salt and cracked pepper, and add the garlic. Cook for another three minutes or so, stirring frequently, until the onions start to take on some color. At this point, remove half of the onion mixture to a mixing bowl and set those aside to cool. With the other half of the onions remaining in the pan, add the sugar and vinegar- stand back, as the vinegar will hit your sinuses if you stand right over the pan. Cook this mixture down until it seems like there’s very little liquid left- that will only take a minute or two.Then pour in the tomato puree, along with about a half a can worth of water. Stir everything together, add salt and pepper to taste, then lower the heat to a simmer while you make the meat mixture. You want this sauce to a bit thinner than jarred sauce, but not watery, so cook it down or add water as needed to achieve a good consistency.
Prepare the meat: To the bowl with the cooled onions, add the ground meat, egg, milk, parsley, thyme, and rice, then season with kosher salt and cracked pepper. Use your hands to mix everything thoroughly- if it seems like the mixture is a little loose, wait a few seconds then mix again…sometimes it just needs to rest a minute, but without over working it.
: I used a white Corningware casserole, and I only mention this to say that I think a 9×13 would be too big- try for something a bit smaller and a bit deeper. Anyway, lay down about two layers of uncooked cabbage leaves (I read that this will stop anything from burning, but this may be completely unnecessary). Then, start the rolls. Lay down a cabbage leaf, with the stem side towards you, and place about ¼ cup of the meat mixture at the bottom. Roll it over once, then fold both sides in like a burrito, and continue to roll to the end of the leaf. Lay the cabbage roll seam side down in the casserole and continue until you run out of leaves or meat (in my case, I had a bit of meat left over, so I made a meatball and added it to the pan). Add enough sauce to cover the rolls, then cover with a lid or with foil. Bake at 350 for one hour, then remove from the oven and allow to rest for a minute. Evan and I enjoyed these by themselves with only bread for the sauce, but also thought they would be really good with mashed potatoes (does that sounds weird?). Either way, they were super delicious and, not surprisingly, reminded me of food that my grandma used to make when I was very little- I call that a success.