Culinary-wise, I feel very Sephardi for most of the year. But come winter and I reunite with my Ashkenazi side, any Ashkenazi side, for that matter, either my own Polish roots or my husband’s Hungarian ones.
The staples of most Ashkenazi cuisines were always root vegetables and cabbage that could survive the cold European winters. Stuffed cabbage became a beloved dish all over the Ashkenazi world. Most stuffed cabbage recipes, mainly from Russia, Poland and Ukraine, cook it in a sweet-and-sour sauce, using sugar and lemon juice and the occasional addition of raisins. The Hungarian version tends to be savory, cooked with sauerkraut and smoked meat. The Sephardim, mainly those who lived under the Ottoman Empire, had their own versions of stuffed cabbage, usually in a light tomato sauce.
Stuffed cabbage, like other stuffed vegetables and stuffed dumplings and pastries, is a staple of poor-man’s kitchen. Simple and widely available ingredients, with just a little meat for taste, go a long way and can feed the whole family in a fancy way, showing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And since stuffing anything will always require hard labor, what other dish can better show the love of the cook to her family?
My version for stuffed cabbage uses another ingredient widely available in central Europe, the plum (or in this case, prunes). I cooked the stuffed leaves in prune juice and added whole prunes into the pot. The long cooking makes the sauce syrupy, with a nice balance of sweetness and sourness. I used brown rice for a deeper flavor and red cabbage for its dramatic looks. But I kept the original, poor-man’s ratio of rice to meat, so the beef chuck is mainly for flavor, and half a pound is enough for six people or more. A contemporary version of a beloved old recipe.
For a vegetarian version simply omit the beef and make the sauce with either vegetable broth, water, or chicken-flavored broth.
1 medium sized red cabbage
For the filling:
1 1/2 cups Jasmine brown rice (or other brown rice)
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 lb. ground beef chuck
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
For the sauce:
1 cup prune juice
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
10 pitted prunes (dried plums)
5 garlic cloves, peeled
1. Boil water in a large pot. Cut the core out of the cabbage and cook the rest of the cabbage in the boiling water for 5 minutes. Transfer cabbage to a colander and wash under cold water (keep the boiling water on the heat source). Pull off the outer leaves of the cabbage. The inner leaves might still be too stiff, and in this case put the cabbage in the boiling water again and cook for an extra 5 minutes. Transfer to a colander, pull off the rest of the leaves. Cut out the large vein of each cabbage leaf. Keep in a colander until the stuffing is ready.
2. Discard the cabbage boiling water, and add prune juice, chicken broth, lemon juice, olive oil and salt to the same pot. Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Turn the heat off, cover and let stand until the stuffed leaves are ready.
3. To make the stuffing cook rice in 1.5 cups water and 1.5 teaspoons kosher salt in a sauce pan. Bring to boil over high heat, then cover and lower the heat, simmer gently for about 15 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Remove from heat, cover the pot with a paper towel and the lid on top, and let stand for 5 minutes.
4. In a frying pan over medium-high heat, heat oil and fry onion until golden. Add ground beef and cook while stirring until the meat is browned. Season with tomato paste, nutmeg and black pepper and remove from heat. Mix the rice into the onion mixture.
5. Place a few tablespoons of filling (depending on the size of the leaf) near the rib edge of each leaf and roll up toward the outer edge, tucking the sides in as you roll. Place the stuffed leaves in a pan wide enough for all the leaves to be in one layer (a 12” pan would work).
6. Pour the sauce over the stuffed cabbage. The liquid should cover about 3/4 of the height of the stuffed cabbage (add boiling water if it doesn’t). Arrange prunes and garlic cloves between the stuffed leaves. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, cover, lower the heat to minimum and cook for about 75 minutes, until the sauce is thick and is mostly absorbed by the rice. Remove from the heat, let stand for 10 minutes before serving.