What Do Cabbage Rolls and Torah Have in Common?

Filled with minced meat and assorted delicacies, this comfort food's symbolic shape made it a Simhat Torah favorite.

Vered Guttman

Cabbage is a simple, cheap, widely available vegetable, even during the cold winters. No surprise, then, that stuffed cabbage in its many variations has been so popular all over Europe and the Middle East for centuries. The large cabbage leaves, ideal for stuffing, are filled with a mixture of minced meat and grains and cooked in liquid. As with other stuffed vegetables, this allows the cook to stretch a small amount of expensive meat into a full meal for a hungry family.

Whether it’s the Hungarian version with paprika and sauerkraut, the Romanian style with smoked meat, a Polish sweet and sour version made with raisins, Caucasusian stuffed cabbage cooked with sliced potato, Turkish with pine nuts and yogurt sauce, or the Lebanese and Egyptian version that’s made with minced lamb, the poor-man stuffed cabbage rolls have been feeding generations of grateful families and have become a staple of comfort home cooking in the Ashkenazi cuisine.

But once a year stuffed cabbage rolls take center stage, when on Simhat Torah they symbolize no less than the torah itself (imagine two rolls laying side by side). And why not, this stuff is what makes the Jewish culinary tradition so rich and interesting.

My version below is not a traditional one, yet it draws from Jewish traditions, such as the use of prunes in the sauce. The result is rich and tasty and makes a whole meal.

Beef chuck stew with stuffed cabbage in prunes and wine

This recipe is done in two parts. First the chuck is cooked in red wine, prunes and sour cherries. Then the cabbage leaves are stuffed with some of the chuck and cooked in the same red wine cooking liquid.

INGREDIENTS
1 large cabbage
2 lb. boneless beef chuck roast
Kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup red wine
cup prunes
cup dried sour cherries
1 red onion, halved
3 peeled garlic cloves
½ teaspoon allspice
2 cups hot beef broth

For the filling:
2 cups Jasmine rice
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 tablespoons olive oil

DIRECTIONS
1. In a large pot, cover cabbage with boiling water, bring to boil again over high heat, cover pot, lower heat to minimum and cook for 1 hour. Drain, let cool, then gently separate leaves and arrange in bowl. Set aside.
2. Pat dry beef chuck. Sprinkle both sides of meat with 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon ground black pepper. Put a heavy bottom pot on medium-high heat. Add oil then sear meat until nicely browned on both sides. Remove from pot. Add wine, scraping the bottom of pot, and cook for 2 minutes. Add prunes, sour cherries, onion, garlic, allspice and broth. Bring to boil, put beef back in pot. Add more boiling water to cover the meat, if needed. Cover pot, lower heat to minimum and cook for 2 hours. Transfer beef to a tray, cover lightly with foil. Reserve cooking liquid. Discard the onion.
3. While the beef is cooking, soak rice in cold water for at least one hour.
4. Drain rice, put in a bowl with filling ingredients. Shred a quarter of the cooked beef into the filling mixture and mix well.
5. Spray a wide pan with oil. Stuff each cabbage leave with the rice mixture, fold sides in and roll tightly. Arrange cabbage rolls in the pan, preferably in one layer, but two layers are fine.
6. Measure 3 cups of the beef cooking liquid, add 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and mix, then pour over stuffed cabbage. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, lower heat, cover pan and cook for 2 hours, basting occasionally. At the end of the two hours, if there is still too much liquid at the bottom of the pan, remove lid and cook for another 15 minutes.
7. Reheat beef with the remaining cooking liquid and serve with the stuffed cabbage rolls.