Usually Portland's temperate climate is pretty inviting. Sure, we get rained on in the winter. But other parts of the country get blizzards. At least when the clouds part here, it's fairly balmy. Well, usually.
Recently it looks like the rest of the country is warming up to spring. But here in Portland, we've been getting dumped on by daily rainstorms, and the ground has sogged up to a muddy sponge. It's like it's winter or something, I keep telling friends (to nobody's amusement). Our downtown farmer's market just opened for the season yesterday, but I'm not really thinking about tender green shoots. I'm thinking about stuffed cabbage.
I never liked stuffed cabbage all that much as a kid, mostly because I'd only tasted versions that played up the sweet'n'sour Eastern European flavoring a bit too much (I'm of the firm opinion that meat and raisins should never play together). But a few months ago I was filling up a friend's freezer during a visit, and figured stuffed cabbage would be a great dish for cold storage. I came across a lovely version from this lovely blog, which lightens up the filling with sweet and earthy carrots and parsnips. I made a beefy version that my friend loved, and have since twice made it vegetarian by swapping some faux chicken for the meat. It's a great veg-packed all-in-one meal, and does a lovely job of getting you through the last soggy days of winter.
Vegetarian (or not) Stuffed Cabbage
yields 1 large tray (the exact number of rolls will vary, depending upon the size of your cabbage)
adapted from Smitten Kitchen, but baked instead of simmered, green instead of savoy cabbage, and a different sauce
1 large head green cabbage
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1-2 carrots, shredded
1-2 parsnips, shredded
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1/2 cup rice, uncooked (or 1/2 cup brown rice, par-cooked for 20 minutes and drained)
1 lb beef, or grated vegetarian beef substitute (I've used chicken-style patties to good effect)
2 cups tomato sauce or v8-style tomato juice
1 cup vegetable broth
1-2 Tbsp cider vinegar
1-2 Tbsp sugar
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the cabbage by cutting out the core (without cutting into the leaves too much). Place in a large pot, and cover with boiling water. Let sit in the water to soften ~10-15 minutes (the cabbage will float, so try to spin it around a bit to ensure it all comes in contact with the water). Alternately, you can soften the cabbage by placing it in the freezer the night before and allowing it to thaw (the ice crystals will do enough damage to the cell walls that the thawed cabbage will be limp enough to work with), but I never think of this in advance.
Heat the oil over a medium flame in a large skillet. Add the onions, and saute until translucent and softened. Add the carrot and parsnip, and saute for another minute or two, until softened. Remove from heat, and season with salt and pepper (season a bit heavily if using beef, just to taste if using a pre-seasoned meat alternative). Add the tomato paste, rice and meat (or meat substitute).
Drain the cabbage, and pull off the leaves. If the center rib of any leaf is big and unwieldy, you can cut it out with a v-shaped slice (but this isn't necessary). Take a leaf, and scoop 1/4-1/3 cup filling in the center (the exact amount will vary based upon leaf size - no need to overstuff). Fold the sides of the leaf around the filling, and roll up the remainder. Place the stuffed leaf, seam side down, in a large casserole dish. Repeat with the remaining leaves and filling. If you have leftover leaves, you can chop them finely and scatter them over the top, although that sadly distracts from your neat little packages.
In a separate bowl, mix together the tomato sauce, broth, vinegar and sugar. Season to taste with salt and pepper, adjusting the vinegar and sugar as needed to make a sauce that is just a little bit sweet and tangy. Pour the sauce over the stuffed cabbage (you may need to wait a few moments to make sure it settles into all of the nooks and crannies, depending on how densely you've got them packed). Cover tightly with a lid or foil, and bake until the filling is set and the cabbage is totally soft, ~ 1 hour. Enjoy right away, or let cool and freeze.