Cabbage rolls (holubtsi)

16 Jun

Cabbage rolls

Cabbage rolls are the most Ukrainian of dishes, but they are also very Canadian. After all, Canada is home to more than 1.2 million Ukrainian-Canadians, – the world’s third largest Ukrainian population (after the Ukraine itself and Russia).

Where I grew up, buffets and potluck suppers always featured platters of cabbage rolls alongside the baked ham, potato salads, scalloped potatoes and tuna casseroles topped with crushed potato chips. Everyone seemed to adore them – everyone except me…

It’s not as if I haven’t given them a chance. I’ve eaten dozens of cabbage rolls over the years, and the most I could say about any of them is “meh”…

Which is why I wanted to have a go at making them in the Euro 2016 food challenge – 1.2 million Ukrainian-Canadians can’t be wrong…;-)

After looking at a number of recipes online, I didn’t follow any one in particular, but tried to address the things that have left me less than enthusiastic about cabbage rolls, which I’ve often found to be watery, tough-yet-overcooked, heavy and bland.

I tried both Savoy and the usual white cabbage, thinking that the Savoy cabbage result in a lighter, softer roll. I omitted the tinned tomato soup that features in many recipes, and made a tasty tomato sauce I’d actually want to eat.

I went for a 50/50 mix of ground beef and pork, and having used Japanese rice, decided against adding egg to the filling. I also made somewhat smaller, thinking they might be less dense. I also followed Olia Hercules’ suggestion of adding barberries to the filling.

Whether it was one or more of those tweaks, I don’t know, but I found cabbage rolls to be extremely tasty. I feel like that character in Green Eggs and Ham: “Hey, I like cabbage rolls! I like them, Sam-I-Am! And I would eat them on a train, And I would eat them in the rain…”

Cabbage rolls (Holubtsi)
(makes 12-20)

For the sauce:

  • 1 Tb sunflower oil
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 Tb tomato paste
  • a 400g tin of tomatoes
  • a pinch of sugar
  • salt and pepper

For the cabbage rolls:

  • 12-20 cabbage leaves (one or two cabbages)
  • 1 cup short-grain rice
  • 250g ground beef
  • 250g ground pork
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1/2 cup barberries (optional)
  • salt and pepper
  • sour cream and chopped dill to serve (optional)
  1. Start by making the sauce. Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened. Add the garlic, and cook a few minutes more.
  2. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for another minute. Add the tomatoes (breaking them up if they are whole), sugar, and a tin full of water. Simmer for fifteen minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Season to taste and set aside.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Core the cabbage, and carefully separate the cabbage leaves from the head.
  4. Blanch the leaves for two or three minutes to soften them. Drain and spread on paper towel to dry.
    (Note: I’ve read that freezing the cabbage overnight, then thawing, makes the leaves easy to separate and makes blanching unnecessary. Other recipes core then boil the whole cabbage for 20-30 minutes, then separate the leaves.)
  5. Parboil the rice for 5 minutes, then drain.
  6. In a large bowl, combine the rice, beef, pork, onion and barberries (if using). Season generously with salt and pepper.
  7. Trim the ridges from the outside of each leaf so that they are uniform in thickness.
  8. Place a generous dollop of the filling at the bottom of each leaf. Roll until it is covered, then tuck in the sides and roll the rest of leaf to make a neat parcel.
    Cabbage rolls
  9. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Spread half the sauce in the bottom of a large casserole dish. Arrange the cabbage rolls on top – they should fit snugly. Spread the remaining sauce over the top. Cover tightly with tinfoil and bake for an hour and a half, until the filling is cooked through and the cabbage tender.
  10. Serve topped with sour cream and fresh dill, if desired.

Family score: 8 out of 10


11 Responses to “Cabbage rolls (holubtsi)”

  1. Carol K June 16, 2016 at 9:06 pm #

    I love your blog Andrea!

    • Andrea June 16, 2016 at 9:07 pm #

      Thank you Carol!

  2. Margo June 16, 2016 at 9:24 pm #

    I’m of the same opinion about cabbage rolls. Will take a chance on your research here

    • Andrea June 16, 2016 at 9:58 pm #

      I was very pleasantly surprised. They were tasty comfort food. The barberries were an inspired suggestion, and I liked the way the sour cream worked with the tomato sauce.

  3. densegho June 16, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

    Yay she likes them !!!

    • Andrea June 17, 2016 at 5:56 pm #

      She certainly does! 🙂

  4. Mastering Persian Cooking June 17, 2016 at 1:11 am #

    Your cabbage rolls look amazing.

  5. Yana June 17, 2016 at 8:57 am #

    That’s almost exact recipe of how my Mum does them and my Grandmother used to do (she was Ukrainian), minus the barberries, but always with white cabbage 🙂
    I love cabbage rolls when they are made right 🙂

    • Andrea June 17, 2016 at 9:30 am #

      That’s nice to hear! I thought one of the things I didn’t like so much was the white cabbage, but they were really nice with both types. Making them a bit smaller worked for me, and I thought the ones with barberries were especially good. Not a big difference, but that bit of sourness was really nice. Barberries aren’t so common (I just happened to have some around), and I was wondering what else might be a possibility to add…

      • Yana June 17, 2016 at 4:51 pm #

        Some people add raisins, but no one does in my family, so I don’t add either.
        Yeah, I had to google what are the barberries like..
        White cabbage can be watery and tasteless. My Mum after wrapping up the filling in it, she browns the rolls a few minute in butter before adding the tomato sauce (she makes rather thick one). It is an extra work (as well as calories), but it is never watery 🙂

        Ah, I want to make them now.. 🙂

      • Andrea June 17, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

        Browning them is an interesting idea… I think a good tomato sauce is really important. They release a lot of water when they cook, so the sauce will get thinner.

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