Last week two people wrote to me on the same day asking for a recipe for cabbage rolls, and since I’d never made them before, I decided to take that as a sign. I’m always on the lookout for dishes that I haven’t yet cooked, and besides, cabbage is one of the few green vegetables in season this time of year. It seemed like cabbage rolls and I were meant to be.
Of course, I didn’t know at the beginning just how much work was involved in stuffing cabbage. I decided right away that the filling would be lentil-based; traditional stuffed cabbage recipes require some kind of ground meat, usually cow or lamb, and I find that a combination of lentils and grain is a good vegetarian replacement. So on Sunday, I cooked my lentils (1 1/4 cup lentils, 3 1/2 cups water, 2 cloves minced garlic, salt and pepper to taste and boil uncovered until tender) and soaked my bulgur wheat (1/3 cup bulgar, 2/3 cup boiling vegetable broth).
Then I noticed that the “whole” cabbage I thought I had in my fridge had, in fact, been partially sacrificed to make last week’s Cabbage Noodle Soup. Since it was too close to dinnertime to run to the store for cabbage and still have time to get dinner on the table, I put the lentils and bulgur into the fridge, asked my Facebook followers to tell me what to make with the contents of my fridge, and threw together a modified Aloo Gobi. Buying and stuffing a cabbage would have to wait until Monday.
When I got home from the grocery store on Monday, with the cabbage and 142 other things my family needs in the average week, I was glad I’d already cooked the lentils and grain. Rolling up the filling in the cabbage leaves turned out to be easier than I expected–cabbage leaves just seem to want to wrap themselves around stuff–but the whole process of making the tomato sauce, boiling the cabbage to get the leaves to come free, and trimming the leaves before stuffing them took longer than I expected. I could have made the whole process much easier by using canned lentils and jarred tomato sauce, but I think the recipe would have suffered. Of course, if you’re not up for an afternoon of cabbage stuffing adventures, do whatever you can to make this recipe quicker and easier.
Some things are easier to show rather than tell, so in the spirit of “a picture’s worth a thousand words,” here’s 8000 words’ worth of instruction. I’ve made it printable, so just click on the link above it if you’d like to have a copy to keep with the recipe.
Since it was my first time making cabbage rolls, I decided to be conservative and stick to the seasonings in the non-vegetarian recipes I found in cookbooks and online–meaning very little seasoning. As a result, these cabbage rolls are an excellent showcase for the earthiness of the lentils, the sweetness of the roasted tomatoes and raisins, and the, um, cabbaginess of the cabbage. I thought they were delicious as-is, but I’ve added a few seasoning suggestions to the recipe for those of you who like things highly seasoned.
Vegan Cabbage Rolls
- 1 medium onion chopped
- pinch baking soda
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 1 28-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes*
- 1 16- ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes* pureed in blender
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon salt* or to taste
- generous grating black pepper
- 1/4 cup raisins
CABBAGE AND FILLING
- 1 large cabbage
- 3 cups cooked lentils from 1 1/4 cup dry
- 1 cup cooked grain bulgur wheat, kasha, brown rice, quinoa, etc.
- 1 medium onion minced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon paprika smoked or regular
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon salt* or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice
Sauce: Heat a large non-stick pan and add the onions and a pinch of baking soda. Cook until the onion softens, about 3-5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute. Add all remaining sauce ingredients except the raisins, reduce heat to low, and cover. Cook for at least 30 minutes as you prepare the cabbage leaves and filling.
Fill a large deep pan with enough water to cover a cabbage and bring it to a boil. Remove all torn or ragged outer leaves from the cabbage. Use a paring knife to cut at an angle around the core and remove as much of it as you can. Put the cabbage core-end up into the boiling water and cook until the leaves soften and begin to come free of the cabbage; you may use a fork or tongs to loosen leaves if they become stuck, but be careful not to tear them. Remove each leaf and repeat until you have 10-12 whole cabbage leaves. (I’ve also read that you can freeze the cabbage overnight and let it thaw the next day; the leaves will be softened the same as after boiling. I haven’t tried this, though.)
Place the leaves and the remaining cabbage head in a strainer and rinse under cold water. Finely shred the cabbage remaining on the head and add it to the sauce along with the raisins. Keep the sauce covered and continue to cook on very low.
In a medium bowl, mix the lentils and all remaining ingredients, adding salt and pepper to taste. Dry each cabbage leaf gently and trim the thick rib near the stem end of each leaf.
Put a cabbage leaf on your work surface with the concave side up, like a cup, and the stem end toward you. Place about 1/3 cup of the lentil mixture near the stem end (a little more for large leaves, less for smaller ones) and mold it into an oblong shape. Fold the stem up over the filling and then fold each of the sides toward the middle. Roll the filling up the rest of the leaf. You should have a nice, tight package. Place it on a plate and repeat with remaining leaves. (If you have some filling left over, it makes a delicious salad.)
Spread about half of the tomato sauce in the bottom of a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot. Place each cabbage roll, seam-side down, on top of the sauce in a single layer. (It’s okay if it’s a snug fit.) Spread the remaining sauce over the rolls. Cover and cook on your lowest heat setting until the cabbage is tender, about 45-60 minutes, being careful not to burn the bottom.
To serve, place two cabbage rolls on a plate and cover with sauce.
This is a very mild filling, inspired by Eastern European recipes that don’t use a lot of seasonings. Therefore, you can use it as a template to make rolls that reflect whatever culinary heritage you like. Here are some seasoning ideas:
Spice it up with red pepper flakes or cayenne, or go in a Louisiana direction by adding some Creole seasoning.
Add chili powder and cumin for southwestern flair.
Make them more like Polish golabki by adding sauerkraut to the sauce or filling.
Throw in some chopped fresh dill or caraway seeds
Give it an Italian twist with oregano and basil.
Go in a Middle Eastern direction by increasing the allspice and adding cinnamon and perhaps some mint (or season like stuffed grape leaves).
*For low-sodium diets, omit the salt and use salt-free canned tomatoes.
More Vegetarian Cabbage Rolls
Golabkis (Stuffed Cabbage Rolls) guest blog by Vegan Yack Attack
Cabbage Rolls from Vegan Dad
Vegan Cabbage Rolls by Girl Makes Food
…and check out my Collards Stuffed with Red Beans and Rice for another green option