Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hungarian Cabbage Rolls

The cabbage
I grew up with two distinct cultures in my life: Scottish and Hungarian. The Scottish side comes through in such things as the way I swear, my penchant for tea in the evening, and my endearing love for Doctor Who and all things British. My Hungarian side shines through my cooking, though, and my family enjoys the fruits of that labor.

I adore cooking the things my grandmother used to make for me when I was little (even though I sometimes didn't like them back then!). Chicken paprikash, potatoes and sausage stew, pork goulash, and cabbage rolls are some of the favorites around here. In the late autumn, when the huge cabbages are available everywhere for such cheap prices, it's the perfect time to make a huge batch of cabbage rolls.

You can find the actual recipe at the bottom of this article, after all the pictures and explanations are done with. This allows you to use the recipe as stand-alone, or to refer to the images. I know when I'm trying something new, I like to be able to see what the original chef did!

Taking out the core
Once you've found the perfect cabbage, give it a wash and remove the outer leaves until you're left with a covering of unblemished light green. Use a thick, sturdy knife to cut out the core in a wedge shape, preserving the size of the inner leaves as much as possible. This is done in order to help the leaves loosen during the next stage of preparation. It may take several tries to get enough of the core out, and that's okay. There is no perfect way to do cabbage rolls, and once they start eating them, you will find that most people don't care in the least what they look like.

Boiling the leaves off
I use my huge stock pot to boil the leaves off the cabbage.  You need to have a pot that will allow you to totally submerse your cabbage, as the boiling water is what helps ease the leaves off in one piece. This particular cabbage was so large that even in the stock pot, a tiny bit of it popped up out of the water. You should use a wooden spoon to push the cabbage under the water once it's boiling, in order to get the leaves to soften and come off whole. It may take quite a while to boil the water, especially if your cabbage was in the fridge before you started this process, but it'll get there eventually. Be patient, because this is the most difficult part of the whole ordeal.

Spray a pan
Some people cook their cabbage rolls in a stock or stew pot, but I like to do mine in the oven. Carefully grease a turkey or other large lidded pan (I use no-stick spray) so that the bottom and sides are completely covered. If you forget this part, your cabbage rolls will stick to the sides and/or bottom, and will fall apart when you take them out to serve them. You can do this while the cabbage is boiling, or while you're waiting for it to boil. I suggest bringing a book along, too, or some music, because it takes a while!

Grate an onion or two
You need to grate up your onions for this recipe. Chopping or dicing them just doesn't work. I use a hand-held grater and the handle part off of a mandolin slicer (to save my fingers from getting grated along with the onion!). Cut off one end of the onion, but leave the other end intact as you'll be using it to hold onto as you grate. I like to use two onions, but the amount is optional. Grated onion seems to expand and fill a lot more space than chopped does, so don't be surprised if your whole pan fills up. If you're like me and your eyes fill up with tears at the mere peeling of an onion, you can try the little trick I learned from Pinterest: wear goggles! I had a pair left over from soap making (lye and water can be dangerous) which I pulled on. I still got a little bit in through the edges, probably due to the fact that I had glasses on underneath the goggles, I didn't suffer at all through the grating process. I will always remember this.

The secret to not crying: goggles!

Cooking the onion
In a little bit of oil, butter, or melted bacon fat, sauté  your onions until they are clear. You'll know they're almost ready when most of the liquid is gone and the smell of fried onions fills your home. This is the beginning of the fun part of making cabbage rolls. Of course, you'll be doing this while your cabbage leaves are softening in the boiling water. That part takes a long time, and is quite tedious. However, the wait is completely worth it.

Loosening leaves
Throughout all the other parts of making the cabbage rolls, you'll be going back to the pot of boiling water with the actual cabbage in it. I use a large meat fork to hold my cabbage in place (with a plastic or wood handle so that I can leave it in the cabbage and not burn myself) and a wooden spoon to slide under the edge of the outer leaves. As they become cooked, they'll loosen up and you'll be able to encourage them to slide off. Generally, you'll get four to five leaves off and then have to wait again while the leaves that are now on the outside get soft. Scoop out the leaves that have come free, and set them on a towel to cool and dry off a bit.

Paprika makes it red
Once your onions are about done, add a couple tablespoons of good quality Hungarian paprika. I like the sweet kind myself (which still has a tiny bit of heat to it), but some people like to mix the hot and sweet together. Cabbage rolls are not meant to be spicy, so don't use all hot paprika. As you stir the paprika in, the whole pan will turn a lovely dark red color, and the scent of your onions will change slightly, taking on an earthier aroma. You will find that you know that aroma well if you do Hungarian cooking on a regular basis, because onions and paprika are the start of most Hungarian dishes.

Garlic, ready to mince
At this point you want to add about six to eight cloves of garlic to your onion mixture. I prefer to squish mine in a garlic mincer (as pictured), but you can also mince it up by hand, or even use bottled, pre-minced garlic. Fresh garlic has oils and flavors in it that no bottle can ever provide, though, so keep that in mind. Once the garlic is added, stir it around and let it cook into the onion mix fully. It should only take about three to five minutes for the garlic to be at the ready stage. Don't overcook the garlic, as it takes away from the essential oils and flavor of it.

The insides!
In a large bowl, mix together your (uncooked) rice, the onion and garlic mixture, and your ground meats. I used a blend of ground beef and TVP, but you could also use ground pork (though not sausage meat), ground turkey, or even ground venison. Each meat gives a slightly different finished flavor, but the results are similar enough that it's more personal preference than anything else. Use your hands to mix up all the ingredients well, forming a thick paste-like product that holds together in a ball without falling apart.

De-veining the leaves
While your meat is sitting, it's time to take all those leaves you've been drying and cooling, and process them. Each of the leaves needs to be carefully de-veined. Using a sharp knife, cut down each side of that thick middle vein and then remove it. The butterfly-shaped remains can be used as is or cut in half. The larger ones can be cut in half, and smaller ones used whole. You'll get a feel for this as you go along, but you'll want each piece to be about the size of your hand or a bit larger. Any smaller than that and you'll find that you don't have enough cabbage to tuck and roll, and your meat will fall out during the cooking process.

Use the veins
In Hungarian cooking, everything is used. There's no waste, because the Hungarians have been a poor people for so long, they've learned to use up everything. All the veins and trimmings from your cabbage get put into the bottom of your greased pan or pot. These will cook underneath the cabbage rolls, both imparting flavor and keeping them from sticking to the bottom. When raw, they're too big and crunchy to be edible, but after stewing at the bottom of the pan for hours, they become soft and delicious, and you may find yourself eating them.

Leaves on the veins
On top of the veins you put a layer of leaves. Use the ones that aren't quite the right shape or size, or that you accidentally ripped. These ones do not need to be perfect - save the perfect ones for the cabbage rolls themselves! You can also use some of the smaller inner leaves of the cabbage here. There comes a point in the peeling off of leaves that you reach leaves that are too small to use for rolling. While we have a use for the remaining core, a few of those smaller leaves can certainly be used here.

Making the roll
Pick out one of the largest leaves from your pile, and lay it out flat on a cutting board or clean counter top. In the bottom left corner, place an elongated ball of your meat mixture. The meat should sit comfortably in that little curve of leaf, as in the picture to the left. Don't use too much meat, and don't skimp, either. The meat should form into a fairly solid shape which keeps itself together. If it's too dry, you may need to add a bit of water or egg, but be careful not to add too much. If it's too moist, you can add a bit more rice or a sprinkle of bread crumbs. Again, be careful.

Roll it up
Roll up the bottom edge of the leaf, tucking it under the farther edge of meat. You should have your meat inside a cabbage "tube" now, with both ends open. Don't be disappointed if it doesn't work out right the first time or two. Do your best, and as you make your way through all the cabbage rolls, you'll get better at it. If there are bits of vein or hard cabbage that is stopping you from rolling, use a sharp knife to slice it off or cut it in such a way that you can continue to roll.

Tuck it under
Tuck the left edge under the meat, closing up one end of the cabbage roll. Roll again, so that it's held firmly in place. Then tuck in the remaining parts to seal the other end. If you have to undo it and re-do it a few times, don't despair. Do your best, as I said above, and you'll get better with practice. Eventually your fingers get a physical memory of the process of rolling cabbage rolls, and you'll look just as my grandmother did when she was doing it, whipping through the whole tuck-and-roll thing without even looking.

Finished rolls go in the pan
As you finish each roll, tuck it into place on top of the leaves in your pan or pot. If you have any rolls that seem a bit loose, tuck them in at the edges, where the other cabbage rolls will hold them in place. In a tall stock pot, you'll add a layer of leaves between each layer of cabbage rolls. In a pan like mine, you may only get one or two layers.

Add the sauce
Different places in Hungary differ on the types of sauce you should use. I grew up with the sauce being made from tomato soup which my grandmother made from scratch in massive batches and then home-canned. I later used store-canned tomato soup, and that's also effective. Lately, however, I have come to like adding fresh tomato sauce to my cabbage rolls. This time I used pureed tomatoes mixed with a few herbs and some paprika, which were then poured over the top. I also added a cup of V-8 because it is nice and juicy and has the right flavor. If you're cooking in a stock pot, you may want to add sauce in between each layer. In a pan, it isn't such a big deal because the sauce will move around as it heats up and boils.

Melting bacon fat
To make this meal traditional, you'll want to cook up some of the cabbage you had left over from pulling the leaves off. Dice or slice it however you like, and toss it into a pot with some melted bacon fat (I save mine whenever I make bacon, so that I can use it in recipes like this!). My grandmother would have used a half pound of bacon fat or lard, but I use about two tablespoons for a large pot, and then I add chicken broth, usually home-made, for the rest. This results in a finished product that my grandmother told me tastes just like hers, but with a reduction in calories of about 200%. A little bacon fat in something like this goes a long way, flavoring the whole pot of cabbage. This is true of most recipes, in fact.

Simmering cabbage
Let the cabbage simmer on low heat (or in a crock pot) while the cabbage rolls are cooking in the oven or on the stove. As long as you continue to stir it, and add liquid if it begins to dry out, you can cook it for hours and not hurt it. My grandmother would let it simmer for many hours, and the house would smell incredible. If you're feeling frisky, you can also add a bit cooked bacon to this pot for extra flavor. I often serve it all with noodles and sour cream, which rounds it out nicely.

Cabbage rolls, served hot (1)
Cabbage rolls should be brought to the table on a serving platter with sides, or in a large bowl. They become a bit sloppy after cooking for so long, and especially your first few times, you may have some that fall apart. The extra juice in the bottom of the pot is usually mixed with a roux and thickened, and served over the top of the cabbage rolls. Finish this dish off with a nice, warm crusty loaf and a stick of butter, and your family will clamor for more.

One of the best things about these cabbage rolls is that they freeze incredibly well. In freezer containers, add four or five rolls and pop them into the deep freeze for use later in the year. They microwave up beautifully, or can be dropped into a pot with a drizzle of water and stewed up.

  • 1 large head of cabbage
  • 3 pounds ground meat (single type or mix)
  • 2 cups long grain rice
  • 2 onions
  • 6-8 cloves garlic
  • paprika, salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 quarts tomato sauce or soup

Boil the cabbage until the leaves come off. De-vein the leaves and set aside. Sauté onions and garlic with 1-2 tablespoons of paprika, and cook until soft. Mix together meat, rice,  onion mixture and 1-2 tablespoons of paprika, then set aside for the flavors to blend.

Well grease a large roasting pan or pot. Put cabbage veins and spare leaves into the bottom. Into each cabbage leaf, add a palm-full of the meat mixture, and roll up tightly. Place finished cabbage rolls into the pot or pan. Layer evenly, with spare leaves in between each layer.

Pour the sauce or soup over the cabbage rolls, being sure they are thoroughly covered. Cook, covered, in a 350F oven for 2-3 hours or more, or simmer on top of the stove for similar time. Near the end of the cooking time, check to see if the meat and rice are both done. If not, cook longer. Throughout the cooking process, check on liquid levels. Do not allow the cabbage rolls to boil dry! Too much liquid is self-correcting, while too little liquid will cause your cabbage rolls to burn and possibly be inedible.

Serve cabbage rolls with a dollop of sour cream, and some of the sauce. Traditional sides for cabbage rolls include crusty white bread, dill pickles and home-made noodles.

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1) Image by Loyna / Wikimedia Commons