There is something wonderfully comforting about intricately handmade food. Steaming bowls of hand-formed dumplings, bowls of fat homemade tortellini, lemony-bright hand-stuffed grape leaves. The kind of food you only make on holidays or those special occasions when you can spend a whole day in the kitchen painstakingly rolling every piece. And then all the other times when you don’t have the time or energy to make them, you substitute with pre-made varieties, which, while not as good, will certainly do when you need that comforting taste. But what about cabbage rolls? There is no frozen-dinner substitute for those lovely pockets of meat and rice plumped from a long-simmering in tomato sauce. If that’s what you want, you have to make it yourself or just keep wanting.
But that was unacceptable to a lazy cook like myself. Sure, there are times when I will patiently blanch the cabbage leaves and then roll them around a spoonful of the rich meaty filling. I’ll wait for hours while they slowly simmer in a pot of tomato sauce and then fish them out eagerly at dinner time. But most of the time I want to eat them, not make them, which is how this unstuffed cabbage casserole came to be. How, I wondered, could I take all the good things about cabbage rolls and then make them into something that takes only about 20 minutes to throw together and an hour of less to bake. And that, friends, is the stuff casseroles are made of.
When we first tried this version, Jeff looked at me with a slightly puzzled expression on his face. “Well, it tastes like stuffed cabbage rolls. I just think it could taste like something better.” Possibly it could; possibly you could put these same ingredients together and make something more than cabbage rolls; a sort of deconstructed cabbage dish that elevates the lowly peasant food. But that isn’t really the point. The point is that this casserole tastes like that wonderful homemade stuffed cabbage you never have time to make. But instead of hours of work this all comes together in a bowl and bakes in the oven for only a little while. There’s even time for a nap while you make it.
Unstuffed Cabbage Casserole
Makes at least 8 servings
A note on cabbage: I experimented with both Savoy cabbage and plain green cabbage while making this – no purple cabbage since its color bleeds while cooking and I didn’t want a purple casserole. The difference in taste between the two is pretty small and I don’t know if I would have noticed it if I wasn’t looking for it. But the difference in preparation is pretty big. The green cabbage leaves are harder to peel off and they’re harder to cut nicely after the casserole is cooked which means you’re less likely to get neat slices when you serve it. I, for one, will be sticking with Savoy in the future when I make this.
1 green cabbage or 2 savoy cabbages
3 carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1/2 onion, diced*
1 lb ground beef
1/2 cup white rice, uncooked
14 oz can diced tomatoes, well drained**
1/4 tsp clove
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp paprika (I use smoked, you use whatever works for you)
1/4 cup oil***
1 tbs salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 cups tomato sauce (homemade, jarred, whichever kind of most like although a less bold sauce is probably better)
Preheat the oven to 350F. Gently peel the outer leave off the cabbage – this is very hard to do neatly with a green cabbage and somewhat easier with a Savoy. If you’re using green cabbage peel until you have about half as much cabbage left on the head; for a Savoy peel all the leaves off one cabbage until you get to the core. Cut the stem out of each leaf so you’re left with two halves that lie flat, or at lie flat better than they did with the stem still attached.
Using a 9 by 13 casserole dish, line the bottom with cabbage leaves. Here you should the small or scraggly or ugly leaves since they’ll be covered up anyway. Make sure the leaves go up the sides of the casserole dish so that the filling will be completely encased in cabbage leaves when it’s finished. You can always fold the tops over when you load it up. Also make sure there are no gaps between the leaves for the filling to leak out. Reserve 8-10 leaves for the top.
Finely chop the rest of the cabbage leaves into ribbons, slaw style, but make sure you cut out the core since it’s very tough – you’ll need about 2 loosely packed cups of chopped cabbage leaves.
In a large bowl combine the chopped cabbage, carrot, onion, celery, beef, rice, tomatoes, spices, oil, salt and pepper and mix well. Gently pat the mixture into the prepared cabbage leaves and then top with the remaining leaves – make sure all the leaves are tucked in and there is no filling showing.
Pour the tomato sauce over the casserole and cover it tightly with foil. Then bake it for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes. While it will keep in the fridge for a week, the rice texture suffers a bit after a few days, in the way that leftover rice does. And it’s certainly best served hot.
*When it comes to tomato sauce I make this one which is where the other half of the onion goes. If you use a different sauce simply use a whole medium onion, or put the other half in the fridge if you’ll use it.
** Really, drained them well. If they’re too wet then the casserole will end up wet too. There’s a lot of liquid from the vegetables and meat already. You don’t have to press the tomatoes but it won’t hurt to drain them in a colander for 30 seconds
*** This is a trick I learned from making dumplings. Add oil to ground meat filling helps it stay looser so it doesn’t end up feeling like a little puck of meat when you eat it. It also contributes to overall juiciness in the final product without watering things down.