Throughout Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and as far East as Russia and the Balkans, the cabbage roll comes up again and again in varied forms. Some of the names for it allude to “little pigeons” or “pigeon feet,” while others merely translate to “cabbage roll” in English. In Sweden, the dish is associated with Carolus Rex, or Karl XII, a celibate, sober, warrior king who is alleged to have brought the dish back from the Middle East where he developed a taste for Dolmas during exile.
In Northern and Western Europe, it is served with a gravy style sauce, and the Scandinavians of course include a side of lingonberry jam. In Eastern Europe however, the recipe fractilizes with regional and cultural variations dependent on ethnic minority, season and occasion. There are vegetarian versions, sweet versions, cabbage rolls made with pickled cabbage leaves, cabbage rolls with and without the addition of grains and vegetables, sometimes served with tomato sauce, with yogurt, or sometimes with that thick, Eastern European version of sour cream, smetana.
When I first made cabbage rolls I was a vegetarian. I used a barley, mushroom and grated vegetable based filling, and served them with a side of tomato sauce, fragrant with garlic and dill. They were rich, filling, and kept well as leftovers. Now however, I make them with beef or pork and skip the inclusion of grain; making them a Russian inspired paleo and keto-friendly entree that always delights and feels rich and sumptuous while being not at all unhealthy or in caloric excess. I cook them in a sauce not dissimilar to my original formula. This is a great recipe to bring to potlucks and parties as a healthy offering, but also serves well as a meal prep option- a pan full of these in the fridge should last you all week.
When making cabbage rolls, it is important to remember two things; the first is to partially cook the filling before stuffing the leaves, but not to over cook it, and the second is to use boiling water to remove the outer leaves in layers. Cabbage leaves are, and should be, crisp- trying to remove them without first softening them will bring you to tears. They will crack and rip and you will waste all of your effort. It is far easier to dunk the head of cabbage in boiling water for about 20-40 seconds and then to quickly remove it and peel off as many layers as possible before repeating the bath. After a certain point the leaves will be too small to use as wrappers, and you can either save them for some later dish, or shred them and add them to the sauce.
In Germany, cabbage rolls can be large, and sometimes use 2-3 leaves. This recipe takes after Russian varieties, and keeps them fairly small, and the single leaf folding method is satisfying and easy to master.
1 head of Cabbage
1.5 cups ground beef or pork, or a mixture of the two
1 yellow onion, chopped fine
1 large carrot, grated
1 tsp white pepper
½ tsp mace or nutmeg
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp butter
6 cloves of garlic
½ yellow onion, sliced
2 bay leaves
Mince one onion well, and grate the carrot.
Place the ground meat, carrot, onion, white pepper, salt and mace into a large mixing bowl, and using your hands, combine thoroughly.
In a large stock pot boil enough water to submerge the entire head of cabbage.
Take the cabbage, remove any damaged outer leaves, and using two large spoons, gently lower it into the boiling water for around 30 seconds to a minute. Remove it, and peal off as many outer layers of cabbage leaves as you can without ripping or breaking them. Set them aside in a stack.
Re-submerge the cabbage and repeat this process until the leaves are too small to work with as wrappers.
Place a cabbage leaf in front of you, if necessary, use a knife to cut a wedge shape out of the base of a leaf, removing the thickest part which was closest to the stalk.
Shape small handfuls of meat into little logs, and tuck into the bottom of the leaf, pulling the base of the leaf over the meat.
Fold the two ends in towards the center, and roll the cabbage up towards the top, making a tight little bundle.
Nestle this little roll up into the top left corner of a brownie pan, and repeat the process, packing the pan full.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
To Make The Sauce
Roughly chop the tomatoes, slice half a yellow onion, and crush and mince the garlic.
In a sauce pan, melt just enough butter to sautee the onions, and add the onions to the pot. Sprinkle with black pepper.
When the onions begin to yellow, add tomatoes, and stir well, keeping the pan at about medium.
Add salt to taste. Then add garlic and bay. Allow to simmer gently while you finely chop fresh dill.
Add dill to the pot, stir well, and remove from heat.
Pour the sauce over the cabbage rolls so that they are completely smothered.
Cover the pan with tinfoil and cook for 30-40 minutes.
Remove the tinfoil and continue at 400f for 15-20 more. Check frequently to ensure against burning.
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