In my family, cabbage rolls have been a potluck standard my whole life. My great-grandmother Agatha brought them to family gatherings, smothered in a sweet-and-sour tomato sauce with raisins. Yes, those ground-beef-and-rice-filled packets were a family tradition and, frankly, I hated them.
Yet, I can’t deny the practicality of a party entrée that is pre-portioned in a pretty leaf. In the spirit of open-mindedness, I decided to create a different cabbage roll entirely. Filled with ginger-laced chicken, fluffy rice and bright vegetables, then steamed in a light vinegary broth, these adorable cabbage rolls are a welcome, delicious, company-worthy dish that I’ll be carrying to every event.
I contemplated different versions of cabbage and landed on Savoy, for the ruffled edges and the characteristic sweetness that plays against the gentle heat of the filling. The leaf is round and shaped right for making a packet. Look for a heavy head with bright green outer leaves. Lower the cored, but still whole, cabbage into a pot of boiling water and peel off the outer leaves as they become pliable. Slice away the stiff inner rib and the leaves lie flat, so it’s easy to tuck them around the filling.
Ensuring each bite will include a bit of chicken, carrot and some rice is the secret to a balanced cabbage roll. It’s a bit of knife work; I think of it as a meditative task. Some people are squeamish about cutting raw chicken. Wear gloves if needed, use a very sharp knife, and make sure the chicken is slightly frozen to make quick work of chopping it into dime-sized pieces.
The celery and carrots are chopped into small cubes, and the ginger and garlic are finely minced, so the flavors are dispersed through the filling. If I’m in a rush, I’ll pull out my food processor, pulse the celery, carrots and herbs into smallish pieces, and after emptying the work bowl, mince the ginger, garlic and scallion. In a matter of minutes, the filling is ready.
Your first cabbage roll may be a little lumpy. The second one will be better, and by the fifth, you’ll be a professional. The bundles are steamed in the oven slowly, plumping the rice and gently cooking the chicken and vegetables. I cut a round of parchment to fit inside the pot and tuck it around the rolls to keep the steam close to the cabbage, not forming condensation inside the pot, which can make the bundles soggy.
My great-grandmother carried her cabbage rolls everywhere in a blue-and-white Corningware casserole dish with a glass cover, but I like to use a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven. Avoid cooking the rolls in cast iron, as the vinegar in the steaming liquid will do no favors for your precious skillet.
This fall, as the days get shorter and schedules get busy, let’s give cabbage rolls a chance. They’re a terrific option for family dinner, too, and reheat in their very own single-serving packages. Now I know why Agatha brought them every chance she could, and this new spin just might make a believer out of the rest of the skeptics, too.