With Thanksgiving coming up I am already thinking about leftovers, so I decided to try a recipe that would work with both fresh ground turkey and leftover cooked, finely chopped turkey: Stuffed Cabbage Rolls.
No matter what anyone, any cookbook, any chef or online video tells you about how easy it is to remove perfect, un-torn leaves from a whole head of cabbage, forget it.
It’s not easy. But some ways are easier than others. I have tried them all:
*Coring and carefully removing the leaves from a raw cabbage (forget this).
*Steaming the whole head in the microwave in stages, and removing the soft outer leaves progressively.
*Boiling the whole head of cabbage in a big pot covered with water, and either removing the outer leaves as they soften (which means returning the cabbage head to the hot water), or boiling the whole cabbage for 30 minutes then letting it drain stem side down in a colander until cool enough to handle, then removing the leaves.
*Coring, then wrapping in plastic wrap and freezing the head of cabbage overnight. In the morning placing the frozen cabbage in a colander to completely thaw.
I found this last one was the easiest and resulted in the best-shaped leaves.
That being said (and done), I moved on to stuffing. Recipes varied widely and many were flavorless. Most used rice, a good thing because it is gluten-free, but the ratio of rice to meat seemed “off” to me. Too much meat results in a dense, hard stuffing. What you want is a stuffing that sticks together but is tender to the fork and has lots of flavor.
Lastly, the sauce or cooking medium, and the baking time. You need lots of sauce (very few recipes recommended enough), and you need a long time. Tomato sauce is acid and one of the peculiar chemical effects of acid in cooking is that it can slow down the softening of vegetables. (Don’t believe me? Trying sautéing chopped cabbage in a skillet with just butter and vinegar, covered or not. You’re in for a surprise.)
Choosing cabbages: Cabbages are available year round but there are two periods of harvest: June through October and October through March. The early harvest cabbages tend to be smaller, 2 to 2 1/2 pounds, and slightly cone shaped. But their leaves are tender and mild. The late harvest cabbages are round and flat on top, weigh from 3 to as much as 15 pounds. Their leaves may not be as tender but the flavor is deep and well developed. In the supermarket as the cabbages grow older, their outer leaves are removed and discarded. So avoid shiny, tightly packed cabbages, and choose instead those with as many big loose leaves attached as possible. I recommend plain green cabbage; also I high recommend Savoy cabbage, the ones with crinkly leaves. I love red cabbage but do not recommend it for stuffed cabbage because the leaves tend to be thick and tough.
- 1 medium head green or Savoy cabbage, cored, wrapped in plastic, and frozen overnight
- For the stuffing:
- 2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
- 1 medium to large onion, finely chopped
- 1 pound ground turkey, or finely chopped leftover cooked turkey
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white or black pepper
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste (from a 6-ounce can)
- 2 cups cooked, drained long grain white rice
- 2 beaten eggs
- For the sauce:
- 1 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes
- Remainder of the 6-ounce can of tomato paste
- 1 cup of water
- 4 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- For the cabbage leaves:Remove the cabbage from the freezer, place in a colander and let thaw to room temperature, about 6 hours.
- When thawed, carefully peel off outer leaves, up to 24. Cut out and discard the thick white base at the bottom of each leaf.
- In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, heat oil. Add onion and sauté, stirring, until tender and translucent. Add turkey, salt, thyme and pepper and sauté, stirring, until ground turkey is cooked through. Add tomato paste and rice and stir to mix well. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Add the beaten eggs and mix well.
- Spray with nonstick cooking spray a 6-quart heavy casserole with a tight-fitting lid.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Place 2 to 3 tablespoons of stuffing on a cabbage leaf near the center. Fold over both sides. Starting at the end closest to you roll the cabbage leaf tightly. Place seam side down in the casserole. Continue until all the stuffing has been used, making two layers of cabbage rolls if necessary.
- Mix all the sauce ingredients together to make a smooth sauce. Pour over the cabbage rolls in the casserole. Cover tightly and bake until very tender, 2 1/1 to 3 hours.
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