Sunday, February 29, 2004

Take comfort in cabbage

Succulent stuffed vegetable dish still a winter favorite

By Ron Mikulak
The Courier-Journal

Don't let the mild days and occasional robin sightings fool you: Winter is not over yet. Although cabbages come early to farmers' market stalls, and coleslaw is a necessary adjunct to summer barbecues and cookouts, cabbage has always seemed a quintessential winter vegetable.

Perhaps this association is fitting because the cabbage appears to have originated on the damp, chilly shores of the English Channel and the North Sea.

Considered a delicacy of sorts by Roman aristocrats, cabbage - because it was easy to grow and kept well into the winter - later devolved into the homely standby of the European peasantry, and thus into our culinary heritage.

Memories of cabbage dishes are indissolubly tied to the stuffed cabbage I ate throughout my childhood, and that my mother always prepared for my all-too-infrequent (in her eyes) visits home. So stuffed cabbage is the premier comfort food in my memories.

I have always loved the way that particular combination of ingredients played off one another. The mild-tasting, but just slightly crunchy cabbage leaf enfolded the rich and just slightly fatty ground meat, onion and rice filling; the essential blandness of the cabbage rolls set off by the layers of tangy tomato-embellished sauerkraut they were cooked between.

Although I always have loved the taste of this classic cabbage and meat dish, I found the process of blanching the head of cabbage, separating the leaves and trimming the thick ribs before filling and rolling the leaves with the meat and rice mixture a bit daunting. Yet my mother must have done this several times a month throughout her married life.

I do it only on occasion, when I want to bring something a bit unusual for a potluck supper. So in homage to my mother and her influence on my cooking, I offer up her wonderful recipe.

Elsie's Stuffed Cabbage

1 small head of green cabbage, about 2 pounds

1/2 pound ground beef

1/4 pound ground pork

1/2 cup long-grained white rice

1/4 cup ketchup

1/2 medium onion, grated

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 pound sauerkraut, rinsed

1 (14-ounce) can crushed tomatoes or tomato puree

Remove the loose outer leaves of the cabbage and, with a sharp knife, cut out the core at the bottom of the head. Place cabbage core-side down in a steamer basket set in a pot large enough to hold the cabbage easily. Add 11/2 cups or so of water, bring to a boil, and steam the cabbage until leaves begin to peel away with just a slight pressure, 10 to 20 minutes. As the outer leaves loosen, pull them off the head with tongs or a large fork and set them aside in a bowl to drain and cool.

In a bowl, mix the ground beef, ground pork, uncooked rice, ketchup and onion and about 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon ground pepper. Squeezing it all with your hands is the way Mom always mixed it. (The rice will cook quite deliciously inside the cabbage roll.)

In a 6-quart saucepan or Dutch oven, place a one-inch layer of rinsed sauerkraut. Spoon about half of crushed tomatoes over sauerkraut.

Take one cabbage leaf at a time and trim the thick rib flat with a paring knife. Hold the leaf in one hand, core-side (the thicker side) facing toward you. Place a generous spoonful of the meat and rice stuffing in the leaf at the thick end, and roll leaf over filling one roll. Fold one side over the top of the first roll, and continue rolling. When roll is complete, tuck other, still-open end of the leaf into the roll, making a compact bundle that will hold itself together. Place cabbage roll seam-side down on sauerkraut layer. Continue with rest of filling, making as many rolls as you can. Layer the rolls on top of each other as you proceed.

Scatter the remaining sauerkraut in a thin layer over each layer of rolls, and add rest of crushed tomatoes. Fill the tomato can with water and pour that over the top of everything. Cover pot, bring to boil, then lower the heat and simmer about one hour, adding water if the pot seems too dry, until cabbage is tender when pierced with a fork. (It can simmer gently for two hours or more.) Serve as a main dish, as a side dish with ham or as part of a party buffet. Makes about 12 cabbage rolls, serving 4 to 6.

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Take comfort in cabbage

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