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There’s something comforting about food wrapped in other food. We love it across the world: empanadas, spring rolls, hand pies, perogies. Soup dumplings, ravioli, dolmas. Even the Hot Pocket is a version. We call for a reveal, a cutting open with knife or teeth. There’s an element of surprise, but for me it’s the element of containment that satisfies; a dish packaged neatly in its own edible boundary.
So, I love cabbage rolls. They employ the rare use of vegetable as outer layer instead of filling, recognizing the beauty and butteriness of a cabbage leaf like I do. They reverse roles, the firmness on the inside as the meat cooks, the softness on the outside as the cabbage melts down. I like their self-portioning, and their balance of meat and vegetable, weighted in favor of the meat. I even like how they look lined up in the pan, tucked under a sauce to go into the oven.
There are variations of this dish from many different places, but the recipe I used was Danish, called “Hvidkaalsrouletter”. These are easier to make than to say; I listened to the audio pronunciation three times and never got it. But I cooked them without a hitch. The ritual of laying the leaves out, stuffing them, and rolling them into bundles spine-first is meditational and rhythmic. When I’d just gotten the flow, my ingredients were gone and my pan filled. It’s easy to zone out.
Mine had an adjustment, which I told myself I wouldn’t do, but did: I added a red sauce. It could be that I had one on hand that needed using, it could be that I didn’t trust a cabbage roll dry. It helped. The rolls were tender on the inside, with a rich sauce in the pan to drizzle on top. The cabbage was firm enough to cut with a fork, but velvety all the same, and the two parts worked in warm harmony, a nice simple dinner. It was a meal to be made again another day.
The following is the recipe I used, as found here
1 large cabbage
1 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1 large onion
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
Note: You may notice the linked recipe also lists "1/2 cup ground dry”. Never did figure out what this was, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Mix all ingredients, except cabbage, together. Drop the head of cabbage into boiling water for a few minutes, just long enough to wilt the leaves. Remove each leaf separately and put a table-spoonful of the meat mixture in the center of it. Roll and fasten with a tooth pick or tie with a string. Brown in hot butter, then add just enough water to simmer for 30 minutes. Thicken broth in the pan and pour over the rolls to serve. An American flavoring, called Kitchen Bouquet, adds a wonderful touch to the gravy.