I know, I know. Who could even possibly imagine making cabbage rolls without their savory, porky filling? Here’s a first-time ever confession: I don’t really like traditional cabbage rolls, also known as “pigeons” to my central PA peeps. I like the idea of them. I like rolled food (though I don’t know if I’ve ever thought of it like that until now) and I like cabbage, but the ground pork and/or beef and rice were always so greasy and heavy to me. It’s inextricably linked in my mind with my grandmother’s house at Easter, and while I have a great many pleasant memories associated with holiday visits to Nanny’s, her cabbage rolls were not one of them. Sorry, family. I can’t help how I feel.
However, when I opened my CSA bag I realized I had an entire head of cabbage, ready and waiting for me to slap my meathooks all over it. (Are they meathooks if you cook vegetarian food with them?) I had just last week made a red cabbage and apple braise that I stuffed into some crêpes–and it was goooooood–so I didn’t feel like making anything shreddy. But I wanted to use it right away, because I know myself. The amount of time uncooked food sits in my fridge is inversely proportionate to my inclination to use it. I’ll forget about it. I’ll shy away from it. It’s a psychological thing, but apparently when I get fresh food I want to cook everything at once. Which is why we generally do about a half a week’s shopping at a time; if I don’t cook it by Wednesday, it becomes a science experiment. What to do?
A little searching led me to a whole new world of vegetarian cabbage rolls, oh happy day! Oh, frabjous joy! I used this recipe as a starting point but of course, with no inherent respect for the integrity of the recipe, it merely became a series of suggestions. Whatever, it all worked.
One of the primary complaints about making stuffed cabbage is that you have to boil or steam it in order to make the leaves pliant enough to use, and that makes your house smelly. Ha! But no! I just learned this from my sister-in-law: freeze it. The whole head. I washed it and cored it and peeled off the outer leaves and then? In a bag and in the freezer. Don’t blanch it, don’t do anything else to it. Just bag -> freezer. Take it out about an hour or so before you want to start cooking so it can thaw and I swear to you the leaves peel away soft and ready to use. If you must know the chemistry behind this miracle: freezing breaks the cell walls of the cabbage. Thus when you thaw it, its internal structure no longer exists and it gets all floppy. Which, I think, is a technical term. Anyway.
While your cabbage is thawing, start cooking the stuffing. The recipe calls for all the vegetables to be boiled together at once, but I hated that idea so very, very much that I had to take matters into my own hands and saute. I cut the mushrooms into a fairly small dice and sauteed them first at medium-high heat (be ready to stir quite a bit), with a small onion that isn’t in the recipe and fit very tidily into my one-third cup measuring cup.
Once these are nice and brown, toss in the rest of the chopped veggies and let them go to town for a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper–and I always advocate doing so as you cook, at various stages–but keep an eye on the salt, since cheese gets added in later. Once the vegetables start to soften (as in, once they cook for five minutes or so), add in both the bulgur wheat and the spices you choose. For those unfamiliar with bulgur, it’s the parboiled hulled grain from wheat, and is slightly nutty and chewy. It’s the grain used in tabbouleh salad, if that helps. If you want to go gluten-free, I’m sure quinoa would be a perfect substitute. This recipe calls for thyme, marjoram and dried basil, but I just boosted the amount of thyme and marjoram because I have never seen much of a point to dried basil. It’s like the Scrappy Doo of the herb world; nobody really cares about it and some people actively dislike it. Get rid of your dried basil, people. Go fresh or find something else to use.
I let the bulgur saute for a few minutes with the veggies, to boost its nuttiness and let it start to absorb the goodness looming in the pan.
And once that became dry and seemed to get a little sticky to the pan, I added in the broth. The recipe calls for a cup but because I had let the pan start to brown on the bottom and needed to deglaze, I added about an extra quarter-cup of water so there was something that could cook off. I stirred it all around and let it come to a boil.
Once it’s boiled for a minute or two, cover your pan, turn off the heat and let it sit for ten minutes. (If you use quinoa, you may need to let it cook a little longer.) After it sits, add the lemon and cheese (or taste for salt and adjust the seasonings if you decide not to use the cheese) and give it a good stir. Let it get cool enough to handle.
While it’s cooling, cut out the large knobby veins at the bottom of your cabbage leaves. You need at least eight that are large enough to handle most of the filling, and I ended up making some bite-sized rolls with smaller leaves just to use everything up. You’ll have a V-shaped slit at the bottom of your cabbage leaf, so when it comes to stuffing, sit the vegetable mixture (about a third of a cup per roll) at the nice round top of the leaf.
And you’ll put them right in your baking pan, which you have ready and waiting with about a third of a cup of the tomato sauce. Make the sauce as spicy as you’d like. I ground up a pepper sauce I make on a regular basis for my spicy kick, and I used about a quarter-cup of it added to the cup of tomato sauce it calls for. But do what you want. If you just want to add the couple of dashes of hot sauce as the recipe calls for, that’s up to you. Or if you don’t want to add anything spicier than black pepper, that’s up to you. I like spicy, though, and couldn’t resist. I don’t apologize.
Anyway. Into the pan, and then top with the remaining sauce.
I made these earlier in the day so I could just toss them in the oven at dinner time and call it a day. If you also make them early, you should try to take them out of the fridge about a half an hour before you cook them, so they have less time to spend in the oven. You’re not really cooking anything, you’re just heating it through. So. The recipe says they should cook for 15 minutes or as long as necessary; I think mine were in the oven for about 25, maybe a few minutes less. When the tomato sauce is bubbling in the middle and browning on the edges, they’re ready.
We had ours with potatoes roasted with rosemary and onions, some roasted cauliflower and a green salad with pear vinaigrette. Tastes good AND good for you. Welcome to a whole new take on Nanny’s cooking.