Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
Other than Goulash Soup, Stuffed Cabbage Rolls are likely the most popular traditional Hungarian meal. The combination of cabbage and meat is always at the top of a Hungarian menu, whether rich or poor, aristocrat or peasant, in an elegant restaurant or a village kitchen. Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (called 'Töltött Káposzta' in Hungarian) is considered one of the country's national dishes. While this dish is a popular comfort food enjoyed throughout the entire year, it is even more commonly served during the Christmas and New Year's holiday season. Hence, this is the ideal time for me to feature it in my blog! Special additions like smoked ham hocks, Vegeta, curry, chili powder, dillweed, and a touch of Hungarian paprika all contribute to its exceptional flavor profile. The sauce is essentially a combination of tomato juice mixed with a bit of stock from the smoked ham hocks. Finally, this delicious dish is best served with a dollop of cool sour cream and warm hearty bread.
The origins of this dish are believed to have spawned in the Middle East. The custom then migrated to Eastern Europe along the flourishing trade routes. Hence, this dish is not unique to Hungary, as many countries throughout Eastern Europe present their own variation of stuffed cabbage, including Romania, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Balkans, Sweden, and Finland, to name a few. It was common amongst the Jewish culture as a Simchat Torah food, as well, dating back a couple of thousands of years. The Egyptians and the Ottomans also had their individual take on it. Interestingly some cultures sweeten their rolls with raisins, brown sugar. and occasionally cinnamon. Some make their rolls more sour with lemon and sauerkraut, for example; while others make them more savory with smoked hocks and tomatoes. Not only does each culture have its own unique riff on the traditional recipe, but so does EACH HOUSEHOLD.
The recipe below is one that originated in Transylvania, home to my paternal grandfather's lineage. Ultimately, my grandmother and my father (shown in the photo below) who have both deceased, and my uncle, a now-retired opera singer and amazing cook living in Szeged, Hungary, perfected and propagated this recipe. To this day, he makes this dish seemingly EVERY week. He takes great pride in the family's recipe, has made it for me MANY times whenever I visit Hungary, and shared it with me during a previous visit. I greatly enjoyed recently discussing with him the nuances of his technique. It is delicious and similar, to the countless Hungarian cabbage rolls that I have consumed at the various Hungarian Hall gatherings and picnics here in the United States.
Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Roll recipe
Ingredients (quantity for approx. 60 small rolls)
3 medium heads of green cabbage (flatter style with thinner leaves)
2-1/2 cup rice
3 medium sweet onions, finely diced
~10 cloves of garlic, pressed
5 lbs. ground pork
1 tbsp Vegeta
1 tbsp Curry powder
1 tbsp Chili powder
2 tbsp sweet Hungarian paprika
1 tbsp hot Hungarian paprika
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp black pepper
3 smoked ham hocks (optional)
3 strips of bacon (optional)
1 bunch of fresh Dillweed, chopped
2 Hungarian Banana Peppers
3 large cans of tomato sauce
Prep smoked ham hocks: Boil the smoked ham hocks in water on low for a couple of hours prior to assembly, in order to cook them through and make a stock.
Prep rice: Wash rice well and let soak in warm water for a couple of hours prior to preparing the mixture.
Prep mixture: Saute the finely diced onions in some lard or bacon grease. Wash and drain the rice thoroughly. Then mix it with the sauteed onions, the pressed garlic cloves, the ground pork. Season the mixture with Vegeta, curry powder, chili powder, Hungarian paprika, salt, and freshly ground black pepper, to taste. Work the mixture together well. Let the mixture sit so flavors meld together a bit while you prepare the cabbage.
Prep cabbage: Boil water in a large pot. Add a tbsp of salt to the water. Generously remove the central core from the head of the cabbage. Place the cabbage heads into the hot water and keep it submerged with a wooden spoon to allow the hot water to penetrate up the hollowed-out shaft of the cabbage and infiltrate between its leaves. Parboil the whole cabbage head in this manner for about 10 minutes to allow the leaves to become tender and to loosen. More pliable, softer leaves enable you to peel them off the cabbage head without them tearing and facilitates easier rolling. Remove the loosened cabbage leaves from water one at a time as they peel away and keep them covered with foil or lid to promote even further softening. Shave off or cut out the thick ribs from the center of each leaf. You may want to cut large leaves in half.
Place a small scoop (1 ½ - 2 tbsp) of the meat mixture on each leaf and roll it up firmly, tucking the edges in toward the center to hold the roll together ('burrito-style'). Don't overfill the leaves as the rolls will be difficult to handle and maintain their form. Dice up any remaining unfilled cabbage leaves, including the previously removed trimmed stalks.
In a large pot or Dutch oven, place a layer of the residual cabbage pieces along the bottom. Next lay the cooked ham hocks overtop. Next, layer some dillweed and chunks of banana peppers. Then, gently layer in the cabbage rolls. Add more dillweed and any leftover diced cabbage leaf pieces amongst the stuffed cabbage rolls. Pour tomato juice into the pot to douse the cabbage rolls. Rinse the tomato juice cans with some ham hock stock and/or water and add to the pot. Add enough liquid to just barely cover the contents.
With burner on medium-high, bring to a gentle boil. Then, COVER with a lid and reduce heat to simmer for 2 hours. Keeping the pot covered with a lid while simmering traps the steam to better soften the rolls. After 2 hours remove one roll. Cut in half and check for doneness. If rice is not tender enough then continue to cook for another 15 minutes and re-check again. Repeat, until fully cooked through.
Serve rolls with a dollop of sour cream over top accompanied by some fresh bread.
What to do with the Leftovers?
No worries! This dish, similar to Osso buco which I blogged about a few weeks ago, gets better with every reheating! What's not to love about that? You won't have to cook, yet gain the pleasure of eating it again a couple of days later.
Hungarian cabbage rolls also freeze very well. Cool them completely and place them into an airtight container. You can store them in the freezer for up to three months. Be sure to thaw them out completely prior to reheating.
Give them a try and enjoy. 'Jó Étvágyat!'