For the first time, my garden managed to produce not one but four heads of cabbage. I’ve had a lot of trouble in the past with heading vegetables; sometimes they never form heads or, if they do, hungry hungry caterpillars get to eat them before I do. But last fall, I planted tiny cabbage plants alongside my collards, and four out of five of them grew into actual cabbages:
Right around St. Patrick’s Day, I realized that I was likely to have a surplus of cabbage, though not in time for that holiday. So I started paying attention to recipes for cabbage, regardless of whether they were Irish or not, and I accumulated a few. I hope to experiment with both sauerkraut and kimchi in the coming weeks, but first I wanted to make a vegan version of a stuffed cabbage that I noticed in Mimi Thorisson’s beautiful but totally not vegan cookbook, A Kitchen in France.
I was mesmerized by the photos in the book, especially for the dish called Chou Farçi. The idea of stuffing a cabbage in a casserole dish rather than as individual cabbage rolls appealed to my lazy side, though after I found the recipe online and really took a look at it, I realized that it was still more complicated than the kind of easy meals I like to make, especially when I started considering whole-foods substitutions for the ground meat it called for. I love using a combination of lentils and grains instead of ground meat, but both would need to be cooked beforehand, making a vegan version of the recipe take much longer than the original to prepare. While I contemplated time-saving techniques, I went ahead and cooked the pearled barley and stored it in the fridge for several days. On my weekly shopping trip, I picked up a can of lentils, just in case I was running short on time. And then it hit me that the “secret” to making this recipe less arduous is to make it a little bit at a time. Even the cabbage leaves can be cooked ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator.
The second hurdle that I had to get over was the seasoning. Ms. Thorisson’s version uses a French seasoning blend called Rabelais spice, which she describes as a blend of allspice, nutmeg, and curry. I wasn’t sure whether she meant curry powder or curry leaves, and Google searches revealed nothing definitive because the formula is a closely held secret that its manufacturer is not divulging. The recipe recommends allspice as a replacement, but since I find allspice overpowering on its own, I came up with my own spice blend that includes cumin instead of curry, along with smoked paprika and cayenne pepper to replace the smokiness and spice of the ground sausage. So I don’t know how authentic my vegan version of Chou Farçi tastes, but to my taste buds, it was delicious.
As you can see, it makes a dramatic presentation. I decided to call it a main dish rather than a side and 4 servings rather than 6 because I know that when I go to this much trouble to make a dish, I’m not cooking much else! I served it with a big chopped salad and it made 4 filling servings.
One note about the cabbage: Those outer dark green leaves are beautiful, and it’s tempting to use them rather than discard them, but they are tough. I used one as the first leaf to line my casserole dish so that the top would be pretty, but that leaf was much tougher than the others, and I wound up removing it from each serving. So please throw out those outer leaves and don’t let beauty matter more than flavor!
- 1/2 cup pearl barley, uncooked (other large grains, such as farro, may be used)
- 1 1/2 cups water (or vegetable broth)
- 1 teaspoon vegetable bouillon or 1 bouillon cube (if water is used)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 carrots, diced
- 1 1/2 cup cooked lentils (green, brown, or black) or 1 15-ounce can, drained well
- 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
- 1/2 cup tomato sauce
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 large cabbage
- First cook the barley (you may do this several days in advance): In the pressure cooker, add the barley, water (or vegetable broth), and bouillon, if needed. Lock the lid and cook at high pressure for 20 minutes. Release the pressure and allow barley to stand covered until all water is absorbed. For regular, non-pressure cooking, bring the water or broth to boil. Add the barley, reduce heat, and simmer for 50 to 60 minutes. If not using right away, place in a storage container and refrigerate.
- Heat a large, deep skillet. Add the onions and carrots and cook, stirring, until the onions soften, about 4 minutes. Add water by the tablespoon if needed to prevent sticking. Add the barley, cooked lentils, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and all spices. Cook, stirring, for two minutes. Add the tomato sauce, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool.
- Discard the tough outer leaves of the cabbage. Cut around the core and carefully remove about 10 of the largest leaves. If the stem ends of the leaves seem thick, use a vegetable peeler to slice away some of the thickness (see image here). Bring a large pot of water to boil and add the leaves. Boil for 8 minutes. Remove each leaf carefully and allow to drain and cool in a colander.
- Preheat oven to 350F. Oil a deep 7-inch soufflé or baking dish. Place the largest of the cabbage leaves bowl-side up the the dish, positioned so that it covers the bottom and part of the sides. Repeat with 2 to 4 more leaves until the bottom and sides are covered. Place a layer of barley-lentil filling in the bowl created by the cabbage, using 1/3 of the filling. Smooth it evenly so that it spreads to all sides. Top it with a cabbage leaf. Repeat with two more layers of filling alternating with a cabbage leaf. Top with a cabbage leaf, bowl side down, and tuck it in around the sides. Using a large spoon or your hand, press down on the leaf, packing in the filling and making sure there are no air bubbles.
- Bake uncovered for 30-40 minutes. Remove. Carefully insert a table knife against the edge of the dish and run it around to make sure there are no stuck-on edges. Place an upside-down serving plate on top, and invert the casserole onto the plate. Serve hot.
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