Mom’s Ukrainian Cabbage Rolls

Today is the day I’ve been waiting for! Today’s the day my mom and I (I’m watching and filming) make cabbage rolls. She doesn’t want my help, but I’ve asked her to allow me to make at least a few cabbage rolls before the pots are filled.

What an epic experience, watching your own mother at eighty make the recipe she has made for sixty years. She learned by watching her mother when she was a teenager – I guess farm girls did that back in the fifties.

Later, when she moved out on her own, she made cabbage rolls by memory. There is no way I could do that, so bless my mother for allowing me to film her and for teaching me. This is my second round learning how to make these gorgeous things. Here’s what I’ve learned, and I could not have learned without watching carefully, hawkishly, and by asking questions:

Don’t forget the sauerkraut!

The day began with my mother looking through the pantry and realizing: she had no sauerkraut! I offered immediately to run to Sobey’s (a posher version of Safeway) to get the plain old sauerkraut that comes in a glass jar. “Do not get wine sauerkraut.” My mother measured the size of the jars with her hands, estimated to be a medium-large size. Once in the store, I spotted two kinds and sizes of sauerkraut and immediately called home.

Yes, it was a “no” to the wine sauerkraut, though I’m not sure why. It looks exactly the same. Is this just loyalty to the brand my mother buys, and that’s understandable, or is there something else at play here? I took home three jars at 795 grams each. We had sauerkraut! Enough for two pots, and for sure I wanted there to be enough. Apparently the wine sauerkraut tastes like, well, wine!

Freeze and unfreeze the cabbage

You take three heads (this is enough for Christmas and New Years, and the holidays in between!) of cabbage, and freeze them for two weeks. I asked my mother about this, because my Saudi friend’s mother (and their maid) don’t do it this way; they boil the cabbage down so the leaves can be rolled. Mom said it’s just easier. I would have to agree. No guess work as to how long you should boil the cabbage.

You thaw the cabbage the night before you make the cabbage rolls, and basically thaw a big container of roast beef. I mean *big*. I would guess it was a kilogram.

Parboil the rice, cut the cabbage hearts out, split the leaves and slice the spines…and begin

There are no exact portion sizes for this – ie. I can only guess my mother cooked 4-5 cups of rice, enough to make a big pot of parboiled rice. One can half this recipe, but why? Simply freeze the leftovers.

While the rice is boiling and swelling up to fill the pot, cut the hearts out of the cabbage. Then begin to separate the leaves and take a sharp paring knife and gently cut the outer edge of the spine on the leave off. Caution: unfrozen cabbage is rubbery…this takes some knack. I literally cut the whole spine out the first time and ruined the leaf. What we want is to avoid the chunky, clunky cabbage leaves in the final product. We want the cabbage to thin right down.

Finally, take the parboiled rice and add it to the meat. My mother put half the meat in at first, and then added the rest. But here’s the important bit: break the meat apart in the big-assed plastic bowl you’ve put this mixture into, and keep breaking the meat apart by adding – three full glasses of water – which was most confusing to me, as everything turned into a giant watery slush. The water cools the rice down, so that it doesn’t cook the meat. But by the time you start to pack your cabbage rolls in, the rice has absorbed that water. Weird. Keep cutting the meat apart until it’s all mixed evenly.

Note: my mother does not spice this mixture at all. I found that surprising, but she salts everything once it’s out of the pot and onto the plate.

I asked her about the one or two times I think she made tomato cabbage rolls. Apparently, my father had the same penchant for tomato-based foods that I do, and so my mother put fresh tomatoes into the pot also, between layers, and I suspect that is how I will make mine. But at least I know how my mom and her mother made basic Ukrainian cabbage rolls, and if I had to guess, on the farm back in the 1940’s, there wasn’t a plethora of ingredients. Simple was and still is good. It puts food in your belly and wholesome, healthy food at that – no chemicals, no mad dash for ingredients.

Spoon the mix into a leaf, fold-wrap your cabbage rolls and put sauerkraut on top

There’s a trick to this: put the leaf into your hand with the shaved spine at the bottom. The leaf naturally cups into your hand. Take a tablespoon or so of mixture and put it into the leaf. Fold the left side, then the top, then the right, and finally life the base/spiny portion of the leaf up to pack that cabbage roll. Once you’ve filled to your satisfaction and can firmly close the cabbage roll, then put it in the pot.

A note on the pot: pack the bottom of it with a layer of crinkled tin foil (as we grew up calling it) aka aluminum foil. This keeps the cabbage rolls off the bottom and lets the liquid get underneath the rolls. Carefully place the cabbage rolls along the bottom of the pot on top of the foil until that first layer is done. Then sprinkle sauerkraut on top of the cabbage rolls. It is here where I realized the bulk of the flavour comes from. My mother dug into the sauerkraut jar with her fingers and here is where I realized cooking has magic. It’s at the fingertips of the one making the food, and from this loving act comes life and sustenance.

It is easy to overfill the cabbage rolls, especially when you get to the smaller leaves in the heads of cabbage. Continually, I had to take my spoon and spoon off the top of my too-large pile of meat and rice, which had now absorbed the three glasses of water my mother had added to the mixture. What is important is to fill the rolls and get them folded and rolled.

The challenges of making cabbage rolls

My aunt noticed that my cabbage rolls were flat. I hadn’t quite recognized that, but there they were on a pan, as all our pots were frozen, ready to be frozen and then later plunked into a large pot and boiled on the stovetop. So, this gargantuan mixture that my mother made led to the making of four pots of cabbage rolls in the end, two deep and large pots, and two more shallow pots.

Note: this takes an incredible amount of time. Be prepared to take breaks or get a tall stool and pull it up to the cooking island in your kitchen if you have one. Or just be like a strong Ukrainian and stand and wrap. It took me easily an hour to wrap a large cookie sheet full of flat cabbage rolls that looked like bars of soap.

How to cook Ukrainian cabbage rolls

The important thing about cooking Ukrainian cabbage rolls is this: they need to simmer. So, you have your layers. If you’re Saudi, you put thin layers of potato, and tomato, plus green chili peppers in between, and you add salt and pepper – and if I had to guess a bit of cumin, but maybe not – it seems cumin is in every Saudi recipe. You add water to the top and get the mixture to simmer and then leave it to simmer for…get ready for this…three hours! Three whole hours.

The pot will not only bubble, but the liquid will get this strange fermented bubbling on top. This is natural and eventually will go away. That is exactly as it should be, and presumably that is the sauerkraut doing its magic.

If there is too much water, eventually you can pour some out. No need for exact amounts. This is an art, after all!

When the cabbage rolls are finished

Check on the cabbage rolls over the three hours they are simmering. Do not simmer on high heat. We had the pot at 2 on the burner.

They are cooked when the cabbage leaves are essentially translucent and soft, but thicker leaves and the spines will only break down so much. In the end, slice open a cabbage roll and see if it is done. You’ll be happy to know that even if you slightly overcook a pot of cabbage rolls, they still hold together and taste the same – delicious!

Put a couple or three on your plate, depending on the size, salt like a good Ukrainian would, and enjoy! Be grateful for these cooking traditions that live through our parents and come from our ancestors. There is something deeply wholesome about this.

How to store cabbage rolls

I learned that uncooked cabbage rolls can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days, and they can also be put in the freezer inside the pot. My mother portioned out the pots for Christmas and New Year’s, and we’ve been enjoying them throughout the holiday.

Final thoughts and a comparison to Saudi ‘malfouf’

If you do make this recipe, I’d love your thoughts on it. For me, it is blander than a tomato-spiced cabbage roll, but this is exactly how I grew up eating them, and the important thing is knowing the process of how to prepare and cook cabbage rolls from start to finish. What you serve with them is next: they can be eaten as a meal unto themselves, or served with a full turkey dinner if you’re preparing them for the holidays.

In Saudi Arabia, ‘malfouf‘ or cabbage rolls are much tinier, finger-sized, and served with the entire mezze of dishes that adorn a Saudi table. That’s for another blog post. Still, for me, I could eat cabbage rolls alone, hot or cold, and for days. I actually prefer them cold. They are, to me, better than rice wrapped in grape vine leaves. Not so tart. Healthy, wholesome and delicious as snacks or a full meal, morning, noon and night!

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