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Recipe: Russian-Style Cabbage Rolls

Golubtsy, or Russian-style stuffed cabbage

When Food Guy Greg Patent went to the grocery store recently, the beets he intended to buy looked tired, so his eyes began wandering over other produce possibilities. They stopped at green cabbage - crisp, fresh and glistening with droplets of water. Cabbage rolls were what he'd make.
"When I was growing up in Shanghai, Baba, my Russian grandmother, often cooked golubtsy (cabbage rolls) for us. I especially remember the deliciousness of the tender meat filling and her fresh-tasting tomato sauce.

My mother learned to make cabbage rolls after we immigrated to the United States. She added prunes to the tomato sauce, giving it an intriguing sweet-sour flavor. Some recipes call for raisins in the sauce while others say to add both prunes and raisins. I tend to leave the sauce plain.

Cabbage rolls may also be made with vegetable fillings. Cooked wild rice mixed with cooked brown rice, sauteed onions, diced cooked zucchini and mushrooms are an excellent combination. Toasted pine nuts may also be included for taste and texture. Cheese, too. This is one of the most versatile dishes I know, so please just have fun with it.

As an added bonus, cabbage rolls seem to taste better the next day. In fact, you can make this a day ahead, refrigerate it, and reheat before serving."

Meat-stuffed Cabbage Rolls

1 large head green cabbage (about 4 pounds)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

4 ounces fresh mushrooms, wiped clean and finely chopped

1 pound ground beef

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon whole dried thyme leaves

1 large egg

1/3 cup raw long-grain rice

1 can (28 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes in their juice

1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons sugar

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. The water must be deep enough to cover the cabbage head completely. Turn the cabbage stem side up and remove the core in a cone shape with a sharp knife. The core will be about 3 inches long. Put the cabbage into the boiling water and push it down into the water with a wooden spoon so that it is completely submerged. In 2 or 3 minutes, the outer leaves will have softened to the point where you can peel them off using 2 forks. Put the leaves into a colander set over a bowl. Continue removing cabbage leaves this way as they soften, and add them to the colander. You will need 12 large leaves to stuff plus a few more to line the bottom of the baking dish.

Remove the remaining cabbage from the water and cool to room temperature. Wrap and refrigerate for another use. You can slice the cabbage into shreds and saute in butter with onion to serve as a side dish. Or you can make cabbage soup. Another good use for leftover cabbage is to stir-fry it with Chinese black bean sauce, garlic, ginger and a bit of sesame oil.

For the meat filling, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the carrot, onion and mushrooms, and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Cover the pan and cook 5 minutes more, stirring vegetables once or twice. Cool slightly. (Tip: I use the food processor to chop the vegetables. I cut the carrot into 1-inch lengths, start the machine with the metal blade in place, and drop the carrot into the food processor bowl through the feed tube. When the carrot is spun onto the sides of the workbowl and I can hear no more chopping sounds, I stop the motor, leaving the carrot in place on the sides, and add the onion. I pulse 3 or 4 times just to start the onion chopping, then I add the mushrooms and pulse the machine rapidly only until the onion and mushrooms are very finely chopped.)

In a large bowl, break up the ground beef with your fingers to make sure the meat hasn't clumped together in places. Add the salt, pepper, thyme, cooked vegetables, egg and raw rice. Beat well with a wooden spoon until thoroughly combined.

Puree the tomatoes with their juice in a blender until smooth. Pour into a bowl and stir in the tomato sauce, lemon juice and sugar. Taste carefully and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Line the bottom of a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan with smaller cabbage leaves to cover. To stuff cabbage leaves, you'll need to shave off some of the thick cabbage rib on each leaf. On the outside of each leaf, starting about 3 inches from the stem end, use a sharp paring knife to shave away a thin layer of the cabbage rib without tearing the leaf. This step makes rolling the cabbage around the filling easy.

With the inside side of the leaf facing up, and its stem end nearest you, place 1/3 cup of filling about 2 inches from the stem end of the leaf. Pat the filling into a 3-inch-long horizontal log. Fold the stem end of the leaf up over the filling to cover it - don't make this a tight fold. Then fold in the sides of the leaf - again, keep things a bit loose because rice will expand during cooking - and roll away from you to make a cabbage roll with its seam side down. Set the roll in the prepared pan. Repeat with 11 more leaves and remaining filling. You should have 2 rows of 6 cabbage rolls each on each side of the pan, with just a little space between rolls.

Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour the tomato sauce all over the rolls and cover the pan tightly with heavy-duty foil. Bake about 1 1/2 hours until thoroughly cooked. Serve with some of the tomato sauce spooned over the rolls.

• Makes 6 servings.

(Broadcast: "The Food Guys," 3/29/20, 4/23/17 & 4/27/17, 3/2/08. Listen weekly on the radio at 9:53 a.m. Sundays, or via podcast.)

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