Stuffed cabbage

Grandma’s Scientific Recipe

You might think my grandma’s recipe for stuffed cabbage was probably ancient, handed down from her grandmother’s grandmother. Cabbage, right? It’s been around forever?

Well, yes, but surely rice and tomatoes and green peppers weren’t actually so common in medieval Lithuania? And actually her recipe called for canned tomato paste, which wasn’t even invented until the late 1800s.

But the least ancestral part of this recipe has got to be sour salt. Sour salt is not salt at all, but pure citric acid, which began to be sold in stores about 1920.

So probably this recipe was a very up-to-date one when my grandmother’s mother began using it, and she got it from her mother. It’s old, but not thousands of years old – not even a hundred years old.

Cabbage rolls, though, do go back to the middle ages in Eastern Europe, and by the early 1800s a lot of people in Eastern Europe did use tomato sauce to make savory (not sweet) cabbage rolls like these.

So it’s likely that my great-grandmother was only updating an older recipe that her own great-grandmother might have used.

How to make stuffed cabbage:

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, mix one cup of raw rice, one cup of chopped meat (that’s what my grandma called it; she used hamburger, but I usually use ground lamb), one chopped green pepper, one chopped onion, and a large pinch of salt. Use your hands to mix it well, then wash your hands with soap.

You can order this sour
salt from Amazon

Put a whole large green cabbage head in a large stewpot in your sink. Boil water in the kettle and pour it over the cabbage to soften it a little. Use a sharp knife to cut out the hard core. Pull off the loose green outer leaves and throw them away.

In a heavy, oven-proof casserole, saute another chopped onion in 1/8 cup of olive oil.

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Peel off the next layer of leaves very gently, one at a time. Lay the leaf on the counter so that it curves up towards you, and put a handful of the stuffing in it. Roll this up and tuck in the ends, and put it with the open side down in the bottom of the casserole, on top of the onions.

Repeat with more leaves until either you run out of filling or you can’t get the leaves off in one piece anymore. Stack the stuffed cabbage leaves in layers in the casserole. Between and over the layers, pour a mixture of one cup of water, one can of tomato paste, and 1/4 teaspoon of sour salt (available on Amazon, or use the juice of half a lemon). (Or if you have homemade tomato sauce, you could use that instead).

The liquid should come at least half-way up the sides of the casserole. Cover the pot and bake for about two hours.

Need a faster version?

Try this unstuffed cabbage: same ingredients, but no stuffing, and you can make the whole thing in under half an hour.

Vegetarian or vegan

In its natural form, my grandma’s stuffed cabbage had a certain amount of meat in it, though it was always largely vegetables. You can leave out the meat, if you want, and add an extra 1/4 cup of olive oil and a can of black beans instead. Then your stuffed cabbage will be vegan.

Can I keep this for later?

Sure. Stuffed cabbage is delicious for about a week after you make it – the flavors will blend over time. Keep it in a sealed tupperware so it doesn’t dry out, and heat it up in the microwave.

Published by Karen Carr

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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