Try a spring-like twist on stuffed cabbage rolls, filled with lamb and fresh herbs.
There’s no avoiding the fact that making cabbage rolls is a project. I use a lot of seasonings in my filling, which makes them way better than a typical grandma version, but that means some chopping, grating, and measuring. Plus, the cabbage leaves themselves need boiling before embracing that delicious filling. Note that I use Savoy cabbage here because I love the tenderness of the leaves, but old-school green cabbage will do the job just as well if that’s what you have, just note that they will take a bit longer to cook in that first step of boiling them.
But making cabbage rolls is also fun — part cooking, part craft project – so I look at is as a pleasure, perhaps for a Sunday afternoon. The rolls reheat really well, so leftovers will be as good or better than on day one. You can also freeze some of them; just be sure to freeze in a baking dish, since they’ll go right from the freezer to a 350F oven.
Cabbage rolls stuffed with lamb, herbs, feta, and other good things
FOR THE ROLLS
- 2 small heads Savoy cabbage
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt plus 1 teaspoons and a handful for seasoning the water
- 2 large onions
- 3 or 4 garlic cloves
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil divided
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper plus more to taste
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 1/2 cup long-grain rice soaked in cool water for 1 hour, drained
- 1/2 cup lightly packed chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley reserve a few stems for the cooking liquid
- 1/2 cup lightly packed chopped fresh cilantro reserve a few stems for the cooking liquid
- 1/2 cup crumbled feta
- 1/3 cup packed fresh mint leaves optional
- ¼ cup lightly toasted or fried pine nuts
- ¼ cup raisins
- 2 tablespoons drained capers
- 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
- 1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
FOR THE SAUCE
- 1 small onion about 6 ounces, sliced thin
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
- 1 28- ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 quart low-sodium or homemade chicken broth
- 1 cup freshly grated parmesan
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Prepare the cabbage leaves
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
- As the water is coming to a boil, cut out the cores from the cabbages, and discard them. Gently separate the leaves, taking care not to rip them. When the leaves are getting too small to stuff (less than about 5 inches in diameter), just cut the heart of the cabbages into very thin shreds; you should have around 2 cups of the shredded cabbage, packed. Set aside. Finely chop the onions and garlic.
- Generously salt the boiling water (a big handful should do it). Boil the leaves -- in a few batches, to avoid a big mess -- until they are fairly tender and pliable, around 2 minutes, but exact timing will depend on the thickness of the leaf. Transfer to a colander and drain well, then blot completely dry with paper towels or a clean dishtowel – no fabric softener, please!
Make the stuffing
- Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high, add the chopped onion and shredded cabbage. Season with 1 tablespoon salt and several twists of black pepper, and cook, stirring frequently, until everything is soft, fragrant, and slightly golden. This will take a while, at least 20 minutes. You can encourage softening by covering the pan and lowering the heat for a few minutes. Just pay attention that the onion isn’t getting brown. Taste and adjust with more salt and pepper. Transfer the mixture to a plate or tray to cool completely.
- While it cools, chop the parsley, cilantro, mint, pine nuts, capers, and raisins.
- In a large bowl, combine the lamb, cooled onion mixture, drained rice, parsley, cilantro, feta, mint (if using), pine nuts, raisins, capers, lemon zest, ½ teaspoon of the chile flakes, cinnamon, and 1 teaspoon salt. Mix gently but thoroughly…again, clean hands are most efficient.
- Heat a small skillet and fry about 1 tablespoon of the filling until the meat is cooked. Taste – the rice will be hard, but that’s ok – and adjust salt or other seasonings; you want the filling to be savory.
Make the rolls
- The ideal size of cabbage leaf is about 5 inches in diameter, so you may need to trim and piece some of your leaves so that your rolls are uniform. Put 2 heaping tablespoons of filling onto a leaf just in from the front edge. Gently roll about halfway up, and then fold in the sides. Continue to roll, tucking in any uncooperative cabbage, so that you have a neat packet. Squeeze it gently to tidy up the shape and then place it seam side down into a 9 x 13-inch (or similar) baking dish (you’ll probably use 2 dishes). Repeat with the rest of the filling and leaves, arranging the rolls in a neat pattern.
- Heat the oven to 400F.
Make the cooking sauce
- Slice the onion. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high, add the sliced onion, season lightly with salt and the remaining ½ teaspoon chile flakes, and sauté until the onions are soft, fragrant, and becoming gold, about 15 minutes. Don’t let the onions actually brown. Pour in the tomatoes with their juices and the chicken broth and toss in the reserved herb sprigs.
- Simmer until slightly reduced and the tomatoes are softening a bit, about 5 minutes. Pour the cooking liquid over the cabbage rolls, making sure the onions and tomatoes are divided evenly between the two dishes. Cover the pans with foil and bake about 25 minutes, then remove the foil (watch the steam!) and continue baking until the cabbage rolls are very tender and the cooking liquid is bubbling and browned around the edges, another 25 to 35 minutes. Distribute the parmesan over the tops of the rolls and dot with the butter. Bake for another 10 minutes or so, until the cheese is browned.
- Let the dish rest for at least 10 minutes before serving.