Stuffed cabbage is like the hand-knitted blanket of food for me: a cozy comfort that holds the essence of my grandmother’s love. It’s not surprising I’ve been craving it lately. But I haven’t gotten around to making her recipe because it has felt like more of a project than I can motivate myself for right now.
The main sticking point has been the step of blanching the head of cabbage to make the leaves pliable enough to use as wrappers. It’s not difficult, really, and I even find it fun once I get into it. But still, it has been a barrier, so I found a workaround with this recipe.
This has all the essential flavors and textures of Grandma’s beloved dish: tender cabbage and a blend of ground beef and rice smothered in a sweet-tangy, raisin-studded tomato sauce. But here, the meat-and-rice combination is reborn in the form of meatballs, and the cabbage is chopped and sautéed, so there is no blanching or stuffing needed. And, rather than being left with a kitchen full of pans to wash, everything happens in one pot.
While I was tampering with tradition, I made a couple of small ingredient tweaks, too: swapping in brown rice in place of white (I saved another step by using frozen cooked rice), using no-salt-added tomato sauce and adding maple syrup (more sparingly) instead of white sugar for a deeper flavored sweetness in a minimally processed way.
The final dish hit the spot exactly the way I needed it to, providing all the nourishing comfort I have been yearning for without demanding much effort at all.
Un-Stuffed Cabbage Meatballs in Sweet-and-Sour Tomato Sauce
1 medium yellow onion (about 6 ounces)
1 pound lean ground beef
1 cup cooked brown rice (fresh cooked, leftover or thawed from frozen; from about 1/3 cup uncooked)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 cloves garlic, minced and divided
¾ teaspoon kosher salt, divided
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium head green cabbage (1 ½ to 2 pounds), cored and chopped
Two (15-ounce) cans no-salt-added tomato sauce
½ cup cider vinegar
⅓ cup maple syrup
⅓ cup (scant 2 ounces) raisins
Fresh flat-leaf leaves, for garnish (optional)
Grate the onion on the large holes of a box grater until you have 3 tablespoons. Dice the remaining onion.
In a large bowl, combine the beef, rice, egg, half of the garlic, the grated onion and ¼ teaspoon each of the salt and pepper. Gently mix with your hands until just combined; do not overmix. Roll the mixture into 12 meatballs that are slightly larger than a golf ball.
In a Dutch oven or large, heavy pot over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the meatballs and cook, gently turning the meatballs until browned all around, 4 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to a plate.
Reduce the heat to medium, then add the diced onion and the cabbage to the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage softens a bit, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining garlic and cook, stirring, until aromatic, about 1 minute.
Add the tomato sauce, vinegar, maple syrup, raisins and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until the cabbage softens, about 15 minutes. Remove the lid and return the meatballs to the pot. Recover and continue to cook until the meatballs are just cooked through and the cabbage is tender, about 10 minutes more. Remove from the heat.
Divide the cabbage, meatballs and sauce among the bowls, garnish with the parsley leaves, if using, and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
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