Many cultures and cuisines have a version of stuffed “leaves”. This might include grape, spinach, collard, cherry, or chard. But the most common is cabbage. Cabbage rolls or holubtsi, as they are known in Ukrainian, are what I grew up eating. Almost everyone in the family made them, each cook with her own particular style. They were a mainstay of large family gatherings, always on the table at holidays, christenings, and almost every other special occasion. If you are a family that celebrates Ukrainian Christmas, holubtsi are included as one of the traditional twelve courses of that very special Christmas Eve meal. Over the years I’ve developed my own style of making this dish, with plenty of hints and advice from my mother, grandmother, and my in-laws. I prefer a filling of mostly rice, with only a small amount of ground meat for a little richness. I like the rolls to be on the smaller side, so I reserve the largest outer leaves of the cabbage to line the baking dish and cover the assembled rolls. I trim any leaves that are too large to fit in the palm of my hand, reserving the trimmings to layer into the dish. My mother taught me to carefully trim down the core end of the cabbage leaf, to make sure each leaf was of an even thickness. This makes rolling the leaves so much easier. My sister-in-law, an accomplished cook, says the addition of tomatoes is not authentically Ukrainian. However, I find some chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce added to the cooking liquid gives color and flavor to the dish. And, speaking of flavor, don’t forget to season the rice filling aggressively. The cabbage leaves will absorb some of the seasoning and you don’t want the end result to be bland, especially after you’ve spent a lot of time making the holubtsi. They should be evenly stuffed and neatly rolled, baked with enough liquid to cook the filling and leaves, and deliciously tender at the finish of baking. Enjoy your stuffed cabbage leaves with additional tomato sauce, sour cream, and a sprinkle of fresh green herbs. They can be a side dish or the main feature and any leftovers freeze well.
Stuffed Cabbage Leaves (Holubtsi)
- 1 cup long grain rice
- 1 cup water
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1/2 medium onion , cut into fine dice
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 5 ounces lean , ground pork
- Finely chopped fresh dill , to taste (I used almost all of a 3/4 ounce packet)
- Additional Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 medium-sized head of green cabbage
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 1/2 to 1 cup chicken stock
- Additional fresh dill sprigs , chopped fresh parsley, and sour cream, for serving
To make the filling: Rinse the rice in a fine sieve until the water runs clear. Put the rice and a cup of water in a saucepan, add a teaspoon of salt, and bring to a boil. Let the rice bubble gently for about a minute, then cover the pot and turn off the heat. Allow to stand until cooled and all the water is absorbed. The rice will be "al dente".
In the meantime, melt the butter in a small skillet and add the chopped onion, with a generous pinch of salt. Cook until the onion is tender and just starting to turn golden brown. Cool slightly, and then add to the partially-cooked rice. Add the chopped dill and check for seasoning. The rice should taste quite salty; add up to a teaspoon more salt, if necessary. Now add the ground pork and mix gently. Add a few turns of freshly ground pepper to the mixture and set aside.
Cut the core out of the cabbage and place it in a tall narrow pot, large enough to allow you to cover it with water. Pour boiling water over the cabbage and let stand to allow the leaves to soften. Lift the cabbage out to a work surface and carefully remove the leaves, one by one. Reserve the large outer leaves to line the baking dish. Set a cabbage leaf on your work surface and using a sharp paring knife trim down the core end of the leaf to make an even thickness. Try not to cut through the leaf. If you prefer smaller rolls, trim each leaf, with kitchen scissors, to a size that fits in the palm of your hand. Reserve the trimmings. Place a generous spoonful of filling at the base of each cabbage leaf. Roll the bottom of the leaf up and over the filling, and tuck in the edges as you continue to make a firm, even roll. Line up the rolled leaves on the work surface, seam-side down.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Choose a casserole dish that will hold your rolls in two layers, and butter it lightly. Line the dish with the reserved large cabbage leaves. Place the stuffed leaves in the dish, snuggling them closely together seam-side down. Sprinkle in a little more salt and pepper and a few fresh dill sprigs on each layer. Pour in the tomato sauce and enough chicken stock to cover the rolls a little less than half-way. You don't want the finished rolls to be soggy. Cover the top layer of rolls with additional reserved cabbage leaves and any trimmings. Cover the dish tightly and bake until the cabbage is tender and the filling is fully cooked, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Serve the cabbage rolls with additional tomato sauce, sour cream, and chopped fresh herbs.