Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage

Growing up Hungarian at every family function there would be a pot of stuffed cabbage. So when we decided to throw a surprise birthday party for my mom's 80th, the husband reminded me that of course, someone would need to make stuffed cabbage.

We were planning on 50 people (only about 40 showed) and it came down to me and my sister to fulfill the obligatory stuffed cabbage request. Mind you, my husband doesn't even LIKE stuffed cabbage.

Of course we were having other food besides stuffed cabbage (thanks to my brother and Italian sister-in-law I knew there would be plenty of food!) but the task of making stuffed cabbage for a crowd when I have a full-time job was almost overwhelming.

I channeled my late Aunt Elsie who taught me how to cook for a crowd and hoped for the best.

Making stuffed cabbage for your family is a task but not as overwhelming as making enough for 50 people. It took me several hours just to boil the cabbage.

My house stunk and I almost ran out of pots to store the boiled cabbage in.

Before I get into the recipe for making stuffed cabbage, let me give you some tips.

The most tedious part of making stuffed cabbage has got to be the boiling (softening) of the cabbage leaves. Here's a few tips on how to make it easier.

When choosing your cabbage don't buy small heads. Small heads of cabbage mean smaller leaves and unless you want to make teeny tiny stuffed cabbages I suggest buying a larger head. Now my mother says she looks for a cabbage that is light but I disagree with that theory.

When you are getting ready to boil your cabbage, get the largest pot you have in your kitchen and let the water come to a strong, rolling boil before you put the cabbage in. You need to keep the water hot while you boil the cabbage or else it will take so much longer.

Prepare the head of cabbage by cutting out the core. Use a paring knife and after cutting the core, cut even deeper into the cabbage. This will allow for the individual leaves to come off easier as they soften.

You are not cooking the cabbage but softening the leaves so that they are easier to roll but not soft enough that they will fall apart.

Once the water is boiling, carefully put the cabbage head into the water. I recommend only doing one head at a time. It's hard to keep track of two even if your pot is big enough.

As the cabbage leaves soften they will start to pull away from the head. I use a pair of tongs to gently separate the leaf and then grabbing it by the thickest part I remove it to a bowl.

As the cabbage is boiling you can use your tongs to push into the core which will help the leaves separate from the head. Continue this until you have reduced the cabbage to a small head and then remove it to a bowl.

It takes about 40 minutes to successfully soften the cabbage as long as the water stays hot the whole time.

Boiling the cabbage takes your full attention and this is about the only time when I cook that I cannot multi-task.

Once the cabbage is all softened allow it to cool in a bowl while you make the filling.

My rule of thumb for rice to meat to cabbage ratio is generally 1 cup of rice to 1 lb. of meat to 1 medium to large head of cabbage. This can fluctuate so just in case you run out of cabbage you can fill a hollowed green pepper with meat/rice mixture or roll the meat/rice mixture into meatballs which you can place alongside the cabbages in your pot. Too much cabbage leftover can be chopped and used on bottom and top of rolled cabbages.

When we made our stuffed cabbage for the party we actually did 1 cup of rice to 1 1/2 lbs. of meat and found that worked well also.

Okay, after the job of boiling cabbage is done you can get down to the making of the filling. Some people prefer using all ground pork. I am not a fan and I use half ground beef and half ground pork. You can use any combination but all beef is not really preferred unless of course you absolutely dislike pork.

Stuffed cabbage is simple. It is seasoned with Hungarian paprika, salt, pepper, fresh garlic and onion. Use white rice, not brown as brown rice has a nutty flavor which can overpower the taste. Believe me, I don't like white rice at all but stuffed cabbage needs it.

My grandmother always cooked the chopped onion in shortening just to soften it. I had to purchase shortening for this project as we only have extra virgin olive oil and organic coconut oil in my house. That wasn't going to cut it!

So to make stuffed cabbage for your family you will need the following:

1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground pork
1 large head of cabbage or two medium
1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 to 4 tablespoon shortening
1 1/2 cup white rice (uncooked and NOT minute rice)
tomato sauce (16 oz mixed with 1 cup water)

Chop your onion finely and add it to a frying pan with the shortening. Add the chopped garlic and cook until softened.

In a large mixing bowl gently mix together the meats. Sprinkle the rice over the top and sprinkle the seasonings around. Pour the onion/garlic/shortening over the top.

Gently but thoroughly mix it together making sure it is well blended but do not overmix.

To roll a stuffed cabbage first use your paring knife to cut off any thick vein on the leaf. This will make it easier to roll the cabbage.

Place a leaf on your cutting board or plate and put about 2 tablespoons mixture in the center towards the bottom of the leaf (where you have cut off the vein). Roll the edge over the meat once, tuck one side over and continue to roll until you reach the end of the leaf. Tuck the open side of the leaf into the roll. Don't make it too tight but don't allow it to be too loose either. The meat/rice mixture will expand some but not that much.

Continue this until all your meat/rice is used.

If you have leftover cabbage you can chop it to place on the bottom of your pot or pan. Some people like to use sauerkraut on the bottom and top and also slice kielbasa and layer that with the rolled cabbages.

On top of the chopped cabbage start lining up your rolled cabbages. Try to put the larger rolls and ones rolled with thicker leaves towards the bottom. Do not pack the cabbages in too tightly but allow for some growing room.

After each layer of cabbages sprinkle with paprika, salt and pepper.

Once all cabbages are in your pot slowly pour the tomato sauce in but only enough to cover the top layer. We aren't making soup here!

Lid the pot and put it up to cook.

This should be cooked over a small to medium flame and will take about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Occasionally shake your pot to keep the cabbages from sticking. Use a good non stick pot for this. If your cabbages are sticking it is either because your heat is too high or your pot is bad.

Cooking 94 stuffed cabbages was the challenge for me because I did not have a pot big enough for it. I decided to try and cook them in the oven. You can successfully bake the stuffed cabbages but allow for a longer cooking time. You will need to preheat your oven to 375 and then expect them to bake for about 3 hours. Check them after about 1 1/2 hours by cutting a larger one in half to peek at how cooked the rice appears. Baking them will soak up the tomato sauce so keep some sauce reserved to add about half way into cooking.

Another option is crock-pot cooking your stuffed cabbage. I did wind up finishing cooking half of my stuffed cabbage by filling two 7 quart crock pots. You cannot fit as many in a 7 quart crock pot as I had hoped. They seem to need more room for cooking in a crock pot in order to make sure they all get fully cooked. It can be cooked on low for 5 to 6 hours and then checked or on high for about 4 hours before you check them.

Stuffed cabbage freezes well and that makes for a quick home-cooked meal on a busy night. I am going to make a batch using my crock pot because it is a much easier way to cook it without worries of it sticking to the pot.

Stuffed cabbage is a delicious comfort food and even if you are not a fan of the cabbage, peel it off and enjoy the filling.

If you decide to make the effort to make this, do remember that it often tastes better the next day and like I said it does freeze well. You can re-heat it in the microwave, oven or stovetop by adding a small can of tomato sauce to it and just heating it through.

It is a tradition in many families that is passed down from generation to generation. Enjoy!

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