You know those odd mornings where you roll outta bed and just feel an immense craving for something? This was one of those days. I woke up wanting cabbage rolls. I was thinking...something meaty, juicy, topped with a rich tomato sauce, and cheesy definitely cheesy.
I looked to Google my best friend and said "cabbage rolls", and oh did that open a can of worms. There were Polish Golabki, Japanese cabbage rolls, Chinese cabbage rolls, Italian cabbage rolls; the list goes on. Aside from the Chinese sort, it seems like most of them share similar ingredients and techniques. Took a quick peek in my pantry: aight I've got canned tomatoes, the usual aromatics, some herbs, shredded cheddar — I can wing it. I sieved through tons of recipes before settling on an idea I thought would work, armed myself with tutorials on cabbage-rolling techniques, and marched to the kitchen with my trusty wooden spoon in hand.
I love that the colour gradient here shows how I worked in starting from the outer leaves. Took a whole lotta effort to roll these!
It was a bloody war.
Mince threatening to burst out of the seams, cabbage rolls defiantly moving out of rank; clearly, rolling the cabbage turned out to be a lot harder than I'd expected. As if that wasn't hair wrenching enough, I realised that I didn't have panko while I was halfway into the stuffing. So I paused everything on hand, ransacked my cupboard, found some tempura flour, and scrambled to make some tempura crisps. I'd spent too much time on this to give up then, so those tempura crisps better work.
Mixing the batter, frying them up, and anxiously waiting for them to cool down before I mixed them; when my cabbage rolls were painstakingly rolled and nestled obediently in the baking dish, I stepped back and saw my lonely bowl of grated parmesan just sitting there, completely left out of the party.
What an absolute genius.
I am feeling the despair creeping up on me again, recounting this. This is, undoubtedly, one of the most harrowing kitchen experiences I've had in recent years.
Thank goodness this turned out fucking delicious.
Most cabbage rolls have rice mixed into the meat stuffing, and while I omitted that the tempura crisps filled in wonderfully. Those beautiful golden crisps turned into little cloud-like, fluffy puffs that kept the cabbage rolls from being too heavy. I'm not just saying this to save myself from further embarrassment — they really were delicious. I can imagine parmesan tasting wonderful should I have included it, but honestly the flavours were so robust I didn't miss it.
So I will tell you: make this cabbage roll, complete with all my kitchen blunders and odd substitutions.
Italian-esque Cabbage Rolls (serves 4-6)
600g minced pork
1 yellow onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
150g bacon, diced
1 tablespoon corn flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons mixed herbs (I used thyme and oregano)
1 cup tempura crisps
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 egg, beaten
1 cabbage, cored
6 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 yellow onion, diced
14 oz canned tomatoes, crushed and liquids reserved
600ml chicken stock*
1/2 cup vodka**
1 tablespoon mixed herbs
2 tablespoons Worcestershire
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Fish sauce, to taste
1 cup shredded cheese (I used cheddar)
1. Heat a small pan over medium heat, and cook the bacon till it's crispy. Place the bacon into a large bowl and let it cool slightly, reserving the bacon fat in the pan for the sauce.
2. Put all the ingredients for the meat filling, except the egg and cabbage, into the bowl with the bacon. Using your hands mix everything together until thoroughly incorporated, and season with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside.
3. Bring a big pot of water to a boil, seasoning generously with salt. A stock pot would work well here. Blanch the whole head of cabbage in boiling water for 5 minutes until the leaves are soft but not overly limp. Let the cabbage cool down a little so they're easy to work with. Carefully slice the whole cabbage leaves off the head, making sure the leaves stay whole. You’ll probably need to do this in 2-3 batches as you peel in from the outer to inner leaves.
4. Let the leaves drain on kitchen paper then pat them as dry as you can. Cut the large middle stalk from each leaf so you’re left with a heart-shaped kinda leaf. Discard the stalk. Place even amounts of the filling (~1 heaping tbsp) in the center of each cabbage leaf. Starting at the bottom of the leaf, fold the "flaps" over the filling, then fold in the sides and roll up. Place it seam side down in the baking dish and repeat with the remaining cabbage leaves and filling. Please watch some videos of this to make the process much easier — it gets a lot smoother after you've successfully rolled a few. The cabbage roll can be refrigerated for up to 3 days here, or frozen.
5. To make the sauce, heat some olive oil in your pan. Add the minced garlic and saute for a minute until fragrant. Add your diced onions in, and sweat it till translucent. Deglaze with the vodka and simmer to reduce by half. Add the rest of the ingredients for the sauce, and cook for another 30 minutes till the flavours have come together. Taste for seasoning, and adjust with fish sauce and sugar.
6. Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Pour the sauce over the stuffed cabbage rolls, cover with foil and bake in the oven for 35 minutes. Remove from the oven, uncover and sprinkle the cheese over. Continue baking for another 30-35 minutes till the cheese is melted and browned.
7. Let it sit for 5 minutes before serving.
*I use more stock here because I like more liquids to dunk my bread in. Reduce this if you prefer a drier consistency at the end.
**White wine would be great here as well. In fact, I would probably give brandy a go next time to see how that pans out.