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Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Last Single Cabbage Roll

These were the star of #Foodiechats last Monday
A little less than a month ago, I married the most wonderful, kind, generous, sensitive, intelligent man I've ever met. Our wedding was beautiful, the food was lovely, and I was so happy to take this next step in my life with someone that I was so proud to call my husband. This journey has been a long one. B and I have been together for over four years now, and he's now lovingly taken to telling me my favorite line from his wedding vows:

"From now until forever."

I look forward to many years together. In my vows, I promised that he'd always get the last slice of pizza, the big piece of fried chicken, and that no matter what, his home would be full of good meals, as would be the rest of his life. I show love by cooking, and he's my favorite person to cook for. Now,  you would think that I'd have chosen something a little more loving and poetic than Lithuanian cabbage rolls as the last meal I cooked for him before he moved out of our house the week before our wedding. You would think that I'd take "the last meal" before our wedding day with a little more thought. You'd probably think that I'd put something a little more photogenic on the table, wouldn't you? Well guess what!

I didn't. I put dumb old cabbage rolls on the table and looked across to my then-fiance and realized: this is the last meal I'll cook for him until we're married. As you can imagine, I about cried. The next meal we'd have together would be our rehearsal dinner, of course, and then our wedding tacos, but I didn't make those. Oh, sure, I made the cake, but that wasn't a meal. The last meal I had made for my husband before we were married were dumpy old cabbage rolls. And you know what?

He loved them. He loved the cabbage rolls, ate them heartily, and kissed me lovingly and thanked me for taking the effort to cook him such a nice meal. I was near tears with how embarrassed I was over the silly things and he loved them! Looking back on it now, I can only assume that it was the stress and jitters of everything all coming to fruition. He'd proposed on Valentine's Day and we got married on October 21st. I'd planned the best wedding I could and I'm so happy with how everything turned out.
I'm making a funny face but I love the movement in this shot.
Those veils are hand-sewn and hand-embroidered by yours truly!

And I looked freaking fabulous, too.

Anyway, on to the cabbage rolls! These won foodiechats and had the most-response out of any photo I've posted in recent memory. It turns out that cabbage rolls are an emotional food for many! It's a humble dish by nature and one that's seldom found in restaurants. You get cabbage rolls from grandmother's table, not the gastropub in the hipster part of town. (Or maybe you do nowadays? I don't know, I've never seen them there.)

Holishkes are the traditional Jewish stuffed cabbage that are usually stuffed with a minced meat of some kind, sometimes with rice to fill it up, and then simmered in tomato sauce. It's a pretty common dish at Sukkot, which is a fall harvest festival in which you eat like a pig for seven whole days. Balendeliai (which means 'little doves'), or Lithuanian stuffed cabbage rolls, are eaten just because.

While you can stick to the traditional recipe of forcemeat with rice, I honestly like to make cabbage rolls using leftovers. No, really! You take you leftovers, roll them up in a sturdy veggie burrito, and simmer them in a sauce...then boom! Your leftovers have been reincarnated into something that looks like you did it on purpose. This is what I did for the last single cabbage roll.

Chicken Cabbage Rolls
yields a dozen cabbage rolls, plenty for two with leftovers
  • 1 young cabbage, quite small - or a regular-sized cabbage using only the more tender leaves in the middle
  • 1 lb shredded chicken meat (this was leftover from the chicken tacos I'd made the other night)
  • 1 cup onion, diced quite fine
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced quite fine
  • 1/4 cup fennel, shredded fine
  • 1 1/2 cup cooked rice
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 tsp dried dill
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 cloves of garlic, smashed
This doesn't sound like a whole lot, but trust me, it'll be plenty! You're only using it to stuff things, and each roll won't take more than three tablespoons of filling safely. Then again, I had a rather small, young cabbage that I'd grown. These ingredients sound like a mishmash of leftovers. I have news for you: they were. This was a dish I'd thrown together without even thinking about the fact that it was the last meal I'd cook for my wonderful partner before we were separated then married.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Mix your chicken, diced veggies, and rice in one large bowl. Don't worry about seasoning this part, you'll season the broth vigorously. Meanwhile, bring to boil a medium sauce pot of salted water, and prepare the cabbage. You'll want the younger, more tender leaves so be sure to peel away the larger layers. Trim the hard stem part away, only an inch or two of it, with a paring knife. Using tweezers or your bare fingers - only if you haven't any feeling left in them anymore, like me - blanch your cabbage leaves for about 30 seconds per leaf, just enough to bring out the color and make it soft enough to roll. I suggest doing all the leaves at once so you can lay them flat on a warm plate, ready for rolling.

See? Nice and tight, like little cigars!
When ready, take a spoonful or two of your filling and smash it into a cigar shape. You'll roll by rolling up the bottom, just to cover, and then folding in the ends/sides, nice and tight, to look like an envelope. Roll it up firmly yet gently, almost like you're swaddling a baby bird, and then store them on another plate with the seam down. Repeat until you have no more filling!

Take your favorite dutch oven (I've got mine that I inherited from my great-grandmother) and get it nice and hot on the flame. Add a tablespoon of a neutral oil and let it heat. Once you're good and hot, sear the cabbage rolls, seam side down, to seal, and then on the other side to get some flavor. You will most-likely have to this in batches, but that's okay. Once everything's all seared, you'll reintroduce your cabbage rolls, arranged as tight as you can arrange them, to your pan. Pour in the beef stock, the tomato paste, dill, bay leaf, and whole smashed garlic. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, and adjust seasoning. You want to make sure that your cabbage leaves are wholly covered. While you can keep it simmering on the stovetop, I like to use the oven.

Pop the lid on your dutch oven and bake at 350 for about 40 minutes. Traditionally, you serve this with lots of sour cream and fresh dill, maybe even some scallions if you're feeling fancy. We don't do dairy in the house, so we like Tofutti's sour cream substitute. The best part about this food is that you can set the pot on the table (with a pad underneath that hot pot, of course!) and serve straight out of the cooking dish. I also love that you can make these a day ahead and just heat up as needed, which - trust me - I did, all throughout the week of the wedding. Fortunately, I had my best friend and Maid of Honor Riley there to keep me sane while she lived with me for the week. Bless her.

Riley, you've saved my life so many times. Thank you so much for being my best friend.
So that's it! That's the delicious cabbage roll, that made a spark of interest on the #Foodiechats chat! Thanks so much for reading. If you try any of my recipes, subscribe to me and comment below on your results.

Thank you so much! Happy cooking and happy eating!

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