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Roll Tight

January 4, 2012
Stuffed Cabbage

Don’t worry – these leaves are not stuffy with pride and a false sense of class.

A traditional winter fare in Hungary, stuffed cabbage rolls are quite simple to make, feed a lot, and freeze remarkably well.  You can’t really make a small batch of it, but there’s no need to.  Just portion the leftovers into single-serving size zipper bags or freezer boxes, and stick them in the back of the freezer.  They keep for up to a year, and thaw and heat in the microwave in a matter of minutes.  With a little practice and dexterity, you can make handsome little rolls that can grace any dinner buffet; or you can just make big, hearty rolls – either way, this rich dish will certainly become a comfort food.

To prepare the stuffing, start cooking approximately 3/4 a cup of white rice in a small saucepan.  This time, you don’t need to brown it on butter; just put the rice in the pan and add water to completely cover it and a little more.  Cover it, and cook it over medium heat until all the water is absorbed.  The rice shouldn’t be tender yet.  Let it cool enough that you can handle it.


Half-cooked rice for the stuffing

While the rice cooks, prepare the cabbage.  It’s best to choose a cabbage whose leaves are not too tightly packed – looser leaves will be easier to separate without breaking.  Discard the outermost leaves, then carefully remove each leaf from the head, cutting it off of the stem with a paring knife.  This is a bit of a patience exercise, especially finding which leaf is on top.  Once you have the leaves off, discard the stem, and cut out the strong, stiff center veins from the leaves.


Leaves all around

In a medium pot or saucepan, heat water to a rolling boil.  Drop each leaf in the water for a few seconds to soften them up and make it easier to pack them with the stuffing – this is called blanching the leaves.  Place them on a plate to drip-dry.



Now that the rice has cooled off a bit, let’s make the stuffing.  Mix the rice with a pound of ground meat: in Hungary, it’s most commonly pork; I used turkey; but beef will work just as fine.  Add 2 eggs to bind them together; and spice the mixture with a few cloves of crushed garlic, salt, pepper and lots of paprika.


Stuffing ingredients


Ready-mixed stuffing

Now to roll the cabbages: place a glob of the stuffing on each leaf, then fold over the sides and roll the leaf tightly from the bottom up; just like you would roll a burrito.  Try to keep the rolls even sized, so they cook through in about the same time.  If you have any stuffing left over, shape it into little meatballs that you can cook together with the rest of the rolls.


Rollin' tight

Now to assemble the pot.  I like to use a pressure cooker for this – makes cooking the rolls infinitely easier and more foolproof.  Because of the pressure build-up, the cabbage can’t burn to the bottom, no need to stir, or even to pay too much attention to it.

To build up the cooking layers, start with a base of sauerkraut.  It doesn’t need to be a thick layer, but cover the entire bottom of the pot.  The kraut doesn’t need to be dried completely, but try to keep most of the brine out to balance the acidity and the salt content.  On top of those comes a layer of the cabbage rolls, topped with some meat; preferably something smoked.  You can use half ham hocks or smoked turkey legs and half ribs (pork or beef; bone-in); I used the last leftovers of my Christmas ham – the parts closest to the bone and furthest from the glaze -, along with a ham hock for some smoky flavor.  More kraut, then rolls and meat – rinse and repeat until out of rolls.  Cover the whole thing with a last layer of kraut, then add enough water or stock to reach the top layer of the cabbage stuffers.


Building it up

Put on the lid, and turn the heat on high until the pressure is reached and the pot seals itself up, then drop the temperature to medium or medium-low; just enough to sustain the temperature and pressure.  You know you’re at the sweet spot if the release valve on the lid is bobbing around, and occasionally some steam comes out, but it’s not a continuous flow.  From the point you reach “operating pressure”, it takes about an hour, up to an hour and a half for the rolls to cook through.

Traditionally, the sauce now needs to be thickened up.  I don’t always do this step, but the thickened sauce definitely gives the dish an extra depth.  First, remove the meat and the cabbage rolls from the dish, but leave the kraut with the juices.  To prepare the thickener, melt a good 3-4 tablespoons of butter (or, to stick with the original recipe, lard), and saute half an onion, chopped very finely, and 3-4 cloves of minced or crushed garlic on it.  As the garlic starts to brown and the onion is transparent, add about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of flour to it, just enough to form a pulp; and brown the flour slightly, to about a bread crust color.  Add some ground paprika to the mixture, then pour it up with about a cup of cold water.  Once it’s no longer lumpy, add this to the kraut-y cooking juices, blending well, then bring the whole thing back to a boil again.  Now you can add the cabbage rolls to the sauce again to serve in a large bowl (or, for parties, in a crock-pot set to keep warm); or put the rolls in a serving tray and pour some of the sauce over them.

Don’t forget to top the cabbage rollers with some sour cream, or to offer some on the side – it really completes the dish as well as the Hungarian experience.

Stuffed Cabbage

Stuffed Cabbage (without sauce this time)


Enjoy your meal!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2012 14:30

    I am not a huge fan of cabbage but this actually looks awesome! Perhaps I can try it sometime soon. Thanks for the recipe!

  2. January 4, 2012 12:28

    I cannot believe you posted this recipe, but I’m so glad you did!
    My Czech grandmother used to make these. She served them with a tomato-based sauce I think. Have you ever heard of such a sauce? It may have had something to do my grandfather’s Italian influence 🙂

    • January 4, 2012 16:32

      Aimee, in Eastern Hungary it’s often made with a tomato-y sauce: just add some tomato puree to the fill-up liquid, and of course some sugar to counter out the “can flavor”. 🙂 If that’s not enough tomatoes for your memories, you may want to add a little tomato juice, too; or an extra spoonful of the puree that you gently roast in the thickener.

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