Comforting cabbage rolls have international history


Stuffed cabbage rolls, a blend of sweet, sour and savory flavors, are popping up everywhere from diners and delis to five-star restaurants. They are the new mac-and-cheese, but comfort food with a healthful twist, warming the cockles of your heart, while warding off heart disease. Many countries lay claim to its origins, which accounts for the several interesting riffs on the traditional recipe.

Jewish cabbage rolls (called holishkls, a concoction of ground beef, rice and raisins enveloped in cabbage leaves and simmered in a sauce of brown sugar, lemon and tomatoes) have been traced back 2,000 years to Eastern Europe. They were served in celebration of the fall festival, particularly Simchat Torah, which marks a new Torah cycle.

The dish is believed to have originated in the ancient Middle East where it spread to Eastern Europe as trade routes flourished and various ethnic groups migrated.

• Serendipitously, cabbage rolls became ensconced in Scandinavian cuisine when Sweden’s King Charles XII brought the recipe back to his homeland after fleeing to Moldavia in the Ottoman Empire in the early 18th century on a military mission.

Today the Swedes celebrate Kåldolmens dag (Day of the Cabbage Roll) in late November to commemorate the anniversary of King Charles’ death, serving the Kåldolmar delight with boiled potatoes and lingonberry jam.

Romanian sarmale combines ground pork, caramelized onions and rice nestled in a pickled sauerkraut leaf, and then smothered in dill and tomato sauce. It is often topped with bacon or smoked sausage.

Poland’s golabki, translating to “little pigeon feet” (named after the French dish that wrapped cabbage around cooked pigeon), stuffs the leaves with pork, beef, rice or barley, accompanied by sour cream and sweet paprika.

Ukrainian holubtsi are typically vegetarian, filling pickled cabbage leaves with either buckwheat and wild mushrooms or a mixture of whole grains and root vegetables, braised in tomato juice or vegetable stock served with perogies.

Egyptian mahshi kromb are simmered in an aromatic tomato-based sauce with mint, cumin and other Middle Eastern herbs and spices.

• The Asian variation wraps Chinese cabbage around seafood blends, tofu and shiitake mushrooms.

Claims to health

Cabbage leaves from the rolls provide a phyto powerhouse of antioxidants (especially Vitamin C) to help ward off breast, colon and prostate cancers, reduce “bad cholesterol,” and amp up immunity. Rife with B vitamins and potassium, cabbage boosts energy and calms jittery nerves, while stabilizing heart rate and blood pressure.

As for the tomato sauce, those red beauties packed with Vitamins C, A, B6, niacin, folate and lycopene are believed to put the skids on various cancers, along with heart- and age-related diseases.

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I share my treasured family recipe for sweet-and-sour cabbage rolls to provide a comfort, not only during cooler months, but throughout the year.

For the rolls

1 head of green cabbage

1 pound ground chicken or turkey breast

1/2 cup cooked basmati rice

1 small sweet onion, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/2 cup Thompson raisins

Sea salt and cracked black pepper

For the sauce

1 red pepper, coarsely chopped

1 sweet onion, coarsely chopped

Juice from 1 lemon

1/4 cup brown sugar

18 ounces diced tomatoes (jarred)

8 ounces tomato puree or sauce (jarred)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Sea salt and cracked black pepper

Method: Remove the core from the cabbage. Steam in a pot of simmering water until soft. Gently separate the leaves and set aside.

In a large pot sauté the onion and pepper in oil until tender. Add the tomatoes, sauce, brown sugar, juice and seasonings. Simmer.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the meat, rice, onion, garlic, oil, raisins and seasonings. To prepare the rolls, lay each leaf flat and form logs with the meat at the root end. Roll envelope-style and tuck in the edges. Place the rolls in the sauce and simmer for one hour, or until cooked through. Serve over basmati rice.