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Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage

I’ve posted this recipe on the blog before (you can see it here, if you are positive you want to brave horribly edited and strangely close-up photos), but since that was January of 2011, I figured it was about time for an update–both the recipe and the pictures.

IMG_6732 Plus some cats?

And they wonder why they are banned to our bedroom while we eat.

And they wonder why they are banned to our bedroom while we eat.

I actually managed to jot down all the ingredients and steps on a post-it note while I was cooking, so I can be confident this time around that you can replicate this pretty close to exactly. ¬†This is a traditional family recipe, passed down from my Dad’s Hungarian side of the family, and it has become one of my ultimate comfort foods in the cold-weather months. ¬†I really wouldn’t be able to choose between this and chicken paprikash and nokedli¬†in a comfort food showdown, so it really depends on what ingredients I need to use up or input from Fritz when I need a good old-fashioned cooking therapy session.

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Stuffed cabbage was the meal I made to make myself feel better when Fritz got snowed in and couldn’t make it out to Purchase College to see me for our first Valentine’s day together. ¬†And it was just one of many foods that Dad and I tried when we toured Hungary for nine days after I graduated high school in 2005. ¬†I guess that’s the thing with these heirloom recipes–you can’t help but get all wrapped up in memories when you create the tastes and aromas that are so familiar and poignant.

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But maybe that’s just me? ¬†There’s nothing I love more than a hefty dose of nostalgia–Fritz always teases me about how melancholy I am. ¬†That’s probably why fall is my favorite season and I still love listening to old Coldplay and Bon Iver albums and writing in sentence fragments. ¬†But what can you do, ya know?

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As with any family recipe, this has probably been slowly changed and altered over the years, but I’m sure it’s still recognizable to the average Hungarian.

Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage

  • 1 large head of green cabbage
  • 1 t vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 3 C cooked rice (cooked al dente)
  • 3 lbs ground meat (I usually use a mixture of turkey and beef, but traditionally it’s just beef)
  • 1 t salt
  • several generous grinds of fresh pepper
  • 2 cans sauerkraut (I had two 24-ounce jars)
  • 1/2-1 onion, sliced into half-rounds
  • 2 large cans tomato juice (46 oz cans x two)
  • Additional salt to taste

FYI: this stuffed cabbage recipe makes enough to feed a large family‚Ķfor a week! ¬†I always use really large cabbages, ’cause this recipe freezes really well and I always like to have lots of leftovers.

Start by preparing the cabbage.  We boil the entire head of cabbage until the leaves are soft enough to be rolled without breaking.  To keep from over-cooking the outer leaves, I remove several leaves every 10 minutes or so and set them aside while the inner leaves soften.  If you keep the entire cabbage cooking until the inner leaves are tender, the outer leaves will fall apart when you make the rolls.

A blog reader also mentioned that you can freeze the entire head of cabbage and then allow it to thaw, and this process of freezing and thawing softens the cabbage leaves enough to let them be rolled–I haven’t tried this yet, but it sounds plausible to me!

While the cabbage leaves are cooking, sauté the diced onion in the vegetable oil until nice and brown.  You can also cook the rice at this point (I had some leftover, so I got to skip this step).  You want to cook the rice just until it is al dente, otherwise it will get mushy as the rolls continue to cook.  My family traditionally uses Minute rice and skips the pre-cooking step, but I hate buying Minute rice when I have regular rice at home.  You want to end up with three cups of cooked rice.  I have also used cooked brown rice with good success!

Prepare the filling: combine the turkey/beef, cooked rice, browned onion, salt, and pepper.  Mix the combination well and set aside.

This is my set-up.

This is my set-up.

Once the leaves are all softened, separated from each other, and cooled, you can prepare to make the rolls. ¬†I take each large leaf and slice off the thick spine on the outer side of the leaf–this also helps the leaves to roll easily. ¬†Toss the spine in a small bowl with the second onion, cut into slices.

Awkward hand picture.  Sorry.

Awkward hand picture. Sorry.

Place a small handful of meat on the bottom inside of the leaf, then roll it up to the top and tuck both sides into itself (see the pictures for a better image).

How much meat you put in changes on how big each leaf is!

How much meat you put in changes on how big each leaf is!

I like to imagine the next steps to the tune of the Cupid Shuffle...

I like to imagine the next steps to the tune of the Cupid Shuffle…

Tuck the right (tuck the right, tuck the right, tuck the right)

Tuck the right (tuck the right, tuck the right, tuck the right)

Tuck the left (tuck the left, tuck the left, tuck the left)

Tuck the left (tuck the left, tuck the left, tuck the left)

One of the greatest skills of cabbage-roll-making is rationing the meat-to-leaf ratio and making sure you don’t end up with extras of either.

Once the meat mixture is used up, slice up any additional cabbage you have leftover and add it to the onion.

To assemble everything, find a large (really large) stock pot and toss down a generous layer of onion/sliced cabbage.  Add in a layer of cabbage rolls, then a layer of sauerkraut.  Repeat: onion/cabbage; cabbage rolls; sauerkraut.

Pour the tomato juice over the top, and add some water if necessary so that most of the cabbage rolls are at least partially submerged.

Bring a light boil, then reduce to low and simmer for several hours, until the filling is cooked through and the flavors have melded together.  Serve with mashed potatoes.

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This recipe is always 100x better the next day.

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And the next day. ¬†That’s the beauty of stuffed cabbage.

IMG_6723¬†It takes some serious work, but it’s so worth it in the end. ¬†And the cats agree.

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At least Emerson has the manners to stay on the chair and keep his paws off the table.

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9 comments

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  1. hnaczi

    Please come home and bring some!!!! It looks fantastic, and imp going to try the frozen cabbage trick.

    1. Lauren Zietsman

      let me know if it works! I’d make stuffed cabbage a lot more often (in warmer weather) if I didn’t have to boil the leaves so carefully!

  2. chef mimi

    This dish looks fabulous. Love your pretty kitty too!

    1. Lauren Zietsman

      thanks! I happen to think my cats are the most handsome in the world ;)

  3. Michelle S.

    Ah… brings back memories. My grandmother and mother used to make this dish. I think their’s had a generous helping of sour cream added to the tomato sauce, but otherwise, very similar. They used to peel all the leaves off the cabbage stem first, then boil them… this might save you some time too. Can’t wait to try it!

  4. Erin

    Yum. I’m pumped that it’s finally starting to cool off here so that I have a prayer of eating this soon. Also, how have I never thought to freeze this?!

    I love you. And cats. And your expert making of stuffed cabbage that has it’s origins circa 1998.

    Glad you’re writing again!!

    1. Erin

      Ugh. Autocorrect! Its origins. One of my greatest pet peeves of all time and I cannot correct it?!

      Brought to you by iPhone + late-night nursing…

      1. Lauren Zietsman

        I would like to request more late-night nursing comments :)

  5. Barb Swain

    Beautiful pictures and directions look easy to follow. This person who rarely cooks anymore just might have to try it! Glad you are back!!!