Hungarian-Style Stuffed Cabbage
This is an authentic family recipe, modified by four generations of Hungarian-American cooks. It may not correspond exactly with the versions you'll find in Hungarian cookbooks because each generation has adapted it a bit to suit not only individual tastes but also a changing landscape of available ingredients. The flavors remain true to those that my great-grandmother served at her table after emigrating from Hungary nearly one hundred years ago. There is a fair amount of work involved in producing this dish, but you should be able to get a few meals from it, and it freezes well, too.
- 2 to 3 medium heads cabbage
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup uncooked long grain white rice
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1-1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt
- 3/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 lbs sauerkraut, rinsed, drained and squeezed dry
- 1 container (26 to 28 ounce) quality strained tomatoes (we use Pomi)
- 1 can (6-ounce) tomato paste
- 3 to 4 cups tomato juice, divided
- 4 strips hardwood smoked bacon
Remove the cores from each head of cabbage and remove 2 or 3 of the toughest outer leaves. Fill a large pot, fitted with a steaming rack if possible, with about 2 to 3 inches of water. Bring the water to a boil and place a head (or two if the pot is large enough) of cabbage in the pot. Cover and steam for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the leaves are tender and pliable enough to separate and roll. It may be helpful to remove the cabbage midway through the cooking time, remove a few of the most tender outer leaves and return the head to the pot to finish cooking. You can also freeze raw heads of cabbage in advance and defrost them to soften the leaves for rolling. See more about this method in the recipe notes.
While the cabbage cooks, heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the uncooked rice and stir until well coated with the oil. Add the onion and garlic, combine well, and continue cooking until the rice is a golden brown and the onion is soft and translucent. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
To continue preparing the cabbage for rolling, remove the leaves, layer by layer and set aside, blotting any excess moisture with a kitchen towel as you work. You will need between 36 and 48 leaves to accomodate the quantity of meat in this recipe. Set aside the remaining inner portion of cabbage for chopping later.
To ensure easy rolling, it's best to pare away the thickest portion of the center vein of each cabbage leaf. To do this, turn each leaf outer side up and insert the point of a paring knife just under the thinnest part of the center vein.
Slice away the thick portion of the vein, being careful not to make holes in the leaf (see photo). Reserve the veins for chopping later.
Place the pork and beef in a large bowl. Add the salt, pepper and the cooled onion-rice mixture. Mix well, making sure that the seasonings and rice are evenly distributed throughout the meat - using your hands works best.
To roll the cabbage, place a leaf, inner side up on a towel. Add about 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture to the bottom, center of the leaf. Roll up, using just enough pressure to make a firm roll without splitting the leaf.
Using a paring knife, trim away the sides of the cabbage leaf, leaving about 1/2-inch of unfilled cabbage on either side for tucking in (see photo). Set aside the trimmings for chopping. Using your thumb and middle finger, gently tuck the ends of the cabbage into the meat mixture, forming sort of a dimple on each end. Set the finished rolls aside.
Once you have completed rolling all of the meat mixture, take the remaining cabbage centers, trimmed veins and ends and chop them roughly. Place them in a very large bowl. Add the sauerkraut to the reserved chopped cabbage and mix well. Add the strained tomatoes, tomato paste and 1 cup of the tomato juice. Mix well.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a large roasting pan with nonstick spray. Place a 3/4-inch layer of the chopped cabbage-sauerkraut-tomato mixture in the bottom of the pan. This should be about 1/2 of the mixture. Layer the cabbage rolls on top. It's fine for them to be close together.
Place any remaining rolls in a second layer toward the center of the pan. Top with the remaining cabbage-sauerkraut-tomato mixture, then pour about 2 more cups of the tomato juice evenly over the rolls, making sure all the rolls are moistened. It is not necessary for them to be submerged in the juice.
Lay the bacon strips over the top, cover the pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil and bake for 2 hours, removing after one hour to check if more tomato juice is needed to keep the rolls moist.
To really enjoy the cabbage-tomato sauce, serve over mashed potatoes or with buttered dinner rolls for dipping. Applesauce makes a great additional side.
Makes 36 to 48 rolls with additional chopped cabbage on the side
To use the freezer method of softening the cabbage leaves for rolling, rinse the cabbage, peel away the two outermost leaves and discard them. Pat each head dry and wrap them tightly with plastic wrap. Place the wrapped heads in a freezer bag and freeze until solid - at least 12 hours.
To defrost, remove from the freezer and place in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. Be sure to place a towel under the cabbage as it defrosts in case of leaking. The cabbage releases a lot of water during this process. Also, you will need to be somewhat more diligent about blotting up excess liquid during the prep process if you use the freezer method of softening.
A word about seasoning:
You'll note that the only seasoning added is in the meat-rice mixture. Resist the urge to add any additional salt - tomato products have quite a bit of salt in them, and the bacon layered on top adds a bit more as well. A little extra freshly ground pepper is good though if that suits your taste. Also worth noting is the fact that stuffed cabbage is one of those dishes that develops more flavor as sits. Leftovers always taste better, so if you plan to serve this to company - make the dish ahead of time.