Hungarian-Style Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
This is an authentic family recipe, modified by four generations of Hungarian-American cooks. It may not correspond exactly with the versions you'll find in Hungarian cookbooks because each generation has adapted it a bit to suit their individual tastes and the availability of ingredients. Regardless, the flavors remain true to those that my great-grandmother served at her table after emigrating to the U.S. from Hungary over one hundred years ago.
Hungarian-Style Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
- 2 to 3 medium heads cabbage
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup uncooked long grain white rice
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1-1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt (see recipe notes)
- 3/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 lbs sauerkraut, rinsed, drained and squeezed dry
- 1 can (26 to 28 ounce) diced tomatoes, undrained
- 1 can (6-ounce) tomato paste
- 3 to 4 cups tomato juice, divided
- 4 strips hardwood smoked bacon
Prepare the cabbage:
There are 2 methods for preparing the cabbage leaves for rolling. One is to core the cabbage and steam the whole heads until tender. The other is to freeze the raw heads of cabbage in advance. The leaves will soften as they defrost, eliminating the need for steaming. The freezer method is much easier, but you do need to plan ahead.
Rinse the heads of cabbage and peel away the 2 outermost leaves and discard them. Pat each head dry and wrap them tightly with plastic wrap. Place the wrapped heads in a freezer bag and freeze until solid, 12 to 18 hours (depending on your freezer). Allow at least 24 hours for the cabbages to defrost in the refrigerator. Be sure to place a shallow pan under them as they release a lot of water as they thaw.
Remove the cores and 2 outermost leaves from each head of cabbage. Add 2 to 3 inches of water to a large pot fitted with a steaming rack. Bring the water to a boil and place a head (or two if the pot is large enough) of cabbage in the pot. Cover and steam for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the leaves are tender and pliable enough to separate and roll. It may be helpful to remove the cabbage midway through the cooking time, remove a few of the most tender outer leaves and return the head to the pot to finish cooking.
Continue preparing the cabbage leaves for rolling by removing them from the heads, layer by layer. Set the leaves aside, blotting any excess moisture with a kitchen towel as you work. Depending on the diameter of your cabbages, you will need between 30 and 40 leaves to accomodate the quantity of meat in this recipe. Reserve the remaining cabbage for chopping.
To ensure easy rolling, it's best to pare away the thickest portion of the center vein of each cabbage leaf. To do this, turn each leaf outer side up and insert the point of a paring knife just under the thinnest part of the center vein.
Slice away the thick portion of the vein, being careful not to make holes in the leaf (see photo below). Reserve the veins for chopping.
Prepare the filling:
Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the uncooked rice and stir until nicely coated with oil. Continue cooking, stirring continually, for about 2 minutes, then add the garlic.
Continue to sauté until the rice is lightly toasted and golden in color, 3 to 4 minutes more. Be sure to stir continually to prevent the garlic from browning. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for about 10 minutes.
Place the pork and beef in a large bowl. Add the salt, pepper and the cooled onion-rice mixture. Using your hands, combine thoroughly, making sure that the seasonings and rice are evenly distributed throughout the meat.
Make the cabbage rolls:
To roll the cabbage, place a leaf, inner side up on a towel. Place 1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture at the bottom, center of the leaf. Roll up, using just enough pressure to make a firm roll without splitting the leaf.
Using a paring knife, trim away the sides of the cabbage leaf, leaving about 3/4-inch of unfilled cabbage on either side for tucking in (see photo below). Set aside the trimmings for chopping.
Using your thumb and middle finger on either side of the roll, gently tuck the ends of the cabbage into the meat mixture, forming sort of a dimple on each end. Set the finished rolls aside as you work.
Prepare the sauce:
Once you've used up all of the meat, take what's left of the cabbages along with the trimmed veins and ends, chop them roughly and place them in a very large bowl. Add the sauerkraut and, using your hands, mix well. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato paste and 1 cup of the tomato juice. Combine thoroughly.
Bake the cabbage rolls:
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat a large pot or Dutch oven (7 to 8 quart - see notes) with nonstick spray. Place a 3/4-inch thick layer of the chopped cabbage-sauerkraut-tomato mixture in the bottom. Layer some cabbage rolls on top, keeping them 1/2-inch or so from the sides of the pot. It's fine for them to be close together.
Add another, thinner layer of chopped cabbage, then more cabbage rolls, repeating as needed, finishing with a layer of chopped cabbage.
Pour 2 more cups of tomato juice evenly over the rolls and around the edges of the pot, making sure all the rolls are moistened. It is not necessary for the rolls or chopped cabbage to be submerged in liquid.
Lay the bacon strips over the top and cover tightly. Bake for 2 hours, checking midway through the cooking time to see if more tomato juice is needed to keep the rolls moist.
After 2 hours, test for doneness by cutting one of the cabbage rolls in half and tasting to see if the rice is tender. If not, return the pot to the oven for an additional 30 minutes to 1 hour.
To really enjoy the cabbage rolls and their chunky sauce, serve over mashed potatoes or with buttered dinner rolls for dipping. Applesauce makes a great additional side.
It's also worth noting that stuffed cabbage is one of those dishes that develops more flavor as sits. Leftovers always taste better, so if you plan to serve this to company, consider making the dish ahead of time.
Makes 30 to 40 rolls
You'll note that the only seasoning listed in our instructions is added to the meat-rice mixture. The diced tomatoes and tomato juice contain quite a bit of salt as does the bacon that's layered on top, so resist the urge to add more than we call for. A few extra grinds of black pepper can't hurt though.
Regarding cooking vessels - we cook our stuffed cabbage in a 7-1/2 quart Dutch oven, but any large pot or casserole will do. The important thing is to cover it tightly, so if you don't have a tight fitting lid, use heavy duty aluminum foil and be certain to check for excessive evaporation.
Special Note: Recipes such as this vary from family to family and region to region, and they continue to evolve as they are passed down through the generations, often depending on changes in personal tastes, access to ingredients and sometimes even dietary restrictions. We welcome constructive feedback about recipe variations and family traditions, but insulting, purely contradictory comments will not be published.