cooking with nonna and a recipe for Calabrese cabbage rolls

Like everything else my Nonna makes, her cabbage rolls are amazing. Filling but not debilitating, time consuming to prep but easily done ahead of time, and they freeze perfectly.

But let me tell you, she does things really, really oddly. The way that she cooks the rice in this recipe like it's pasta in conjunction with how she boils the cabbage whole and peels the layers off while it's still in the boiling water verges, in my mind, on cockamamy. But lord help you if you try to make suggestions as to how these things can be done alternatively. Have you ever been scoffed at by an eighty-three year old woman with more confidence than any one person should have? Because I have, and it's harsh. But hey, the results don't lie. Follow the (often odd) steps listed below and get yourself some of the best cabbage rolls in the world. Just saying.

Cabbage rolls

Prep time: 1.5 hrs            Cooking time: 1 hrs            Yield: 22 pcs

  • 1 green cabbage, whole
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1.5C arborio rice
  • 260g ground beef
  • splash of white wine/beer
  • 210g mozzarella, grated
  • 48oz tomato sauce
  • 120g parmesan cheese
  • 5 eggs
  • 65g breadcrumbs

1. Cut the bottom inch or two off of the cabbage. Carve out the core through the bottom, making sure that the cabbage is kept whole. Shave down any ridges on the outer leaves so that they will be less tough when cooked.

2. Put the entire cabbage, cut side down, in a pot with enough boiling water to cover 1/2-2/3 of the cabbage and 1 tbsp of salt. Cook for 2-3 minutes, or until the cabbage has softened (you will notice a change in the colour and opacity of the outer leaves).

3. Begin the leaf peeling process at this point. Using two forks, flip the cabbage so that it is cut-side up and peel the layers off one at a time and into the surrounding boiling water while rotating the cabbage. Repeat the process of rotating and separating the cabbage leaves from the whole until complete, removing the floating leaves as they become cooked almost all the way through (you're looking for the leaves to retain a bit of bite to them as they'll continue to cook later in the oven). Place the cooked leaves in a strainer to drain and cool completely.
    *Note: Nonna insists that if you try to peel the cabbage layers off on your own without boiling the whole cabbage they'll snap. Her way is "the right way".

4. Cook the arborio rice in a pot of water with a bit of salt. Strain when cooked almost through (again, don't overcook as the rice will continue to cook later in the oven) and spread out on a tray to cool. You'll be adding egg to the rice mixture later, so the rice needs to be cool enough to not cook the egg when it is added.
    *Note: I pointed out to my Nonna at this stage that if she cooked the rice according to package directions (rather than cooking it like it's pasta) she would't have to strain it. She insisted that this way is "the right way" and so I'm writing it down the way I was told.

5. Cook the ground beef in a small pot on medium heat with a splash of water and a splash of wine/beer. Continue for approximately 10 minutes or until cooked through. Drain when cooked through, and splash with a bit of cold water.

6. In a large bowl, add the cooled rice, drained beef and 3/4c of tomato sauce and mix well. Add the parmesan cheese, mozzarella, eggs and breadcrumbs and mix until thoroughly combined.

7. Line a deep tray/lasagna pan/ casserole dish with tinfoil and add 3/4c of tomato sauce and 1/2c water.

8. Begin the leaf-filling process by placing a cabbage leaf on a tray, curling upwards. If the leaf is too small, you can overlap two leaves. Fill with the rice mixture and roll from the thick part of the leaf to the thin end, folding the sides in as you do so (like a burrito!). Pack into the tray, seam side-down, leaving a tiny bit of space between the cabbage rolls. Top the cabbage rolls with a bit of sauce.
   *Note: You can freeze them at this point for a few months, defrosting overnight when you want to enjoy them and picking up the cooking process at the next step.

9. Bake the cabbage rolls, uncovered, at 350*f for 45 minutes-1hr, or until cooked through and the liquid is bubbling. Cover with tinfoil and let sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes. Top with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, and serve!
    *Note: Turn the dish into a delicious vegetarian option simply by leaving out the beef

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