In many parts of Eastern Europe, eating cabbage rolls for New Year’s is considered very lucky. Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet (iUniverse, 2009), says: “My mother said that cabbage rolls were considered lucky because the leaves looked like paper money. The New Year’s connection was to roll ingredients that symbolized different things — chestnuts and walnuts look like brains, so they signify intelligence; tomato is about health and transformation, etc. — into the leaves to bring these things to the family who ate them in the new year.”
According to Rabbi Issamar Ginzberg, the cabbage rolls, with cabbage on the outside and meat on the inside, are as a home should be: “Inside should be nice and comfy, but the outside? Don’t make the neighbors envious!” He says that in keeping with Hasidic Jewish tradition, the rolls are eaten on Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashana and Simchat Torah.
Viktorija Todorovska, author of The Puglian Cookbook (Agate Surrey, 2011), recalls growing up with and just loving cabbage rolls: “In Macedonia, where I come from, cabbage rolls are only made in the winter. The cabbage is pickled (most people used to pickle their own cabbages in large plastic barrels), which gives the roll a wonderful flavor, the sourness of the pickled cabbage complementing perfectly the richness of the filling.” The filling includes meat and rice, and on New Year’s Day, it would have some sort of pork filling, making it extra rich.
While the taste may be comforting, there was one issue: Pickled cabbage stinks! “Well, the beginning of the cooking process is a little stinky, but no one seemed to mind, as we knew the results would be exquisite. The cabbage would be tender and falling apart before you could even put the roll on the plate, and the rich filling would be pure comfort. I remember anxiously awaiting the day we’d have cabbage rolls, which we called sarma,” says Viktorija.
In addition to being lucky, cabbage rolls also fit another category of foods: communal dishes. They offer a special occasion for people to sit around and chat as they fill and roll the cabbage. What could be better than a dish that offers the gift of community and good luck?
Cabbage Rolls Stuffed with Meat, Chestnuts and Dill
Adapted from a recipe by Laura Kelley
Cook: 30 to 40 minutes
Yield: Serves 4 to 6
Level: Moderately easy
1 medium onion, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 medium tomato, diced
1 quince, peeled, cored and diced
3 tablespoons diced, cooked and peeled chestnuts (substitute walnuts or other nuts if chestnuts are unavailable)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 or 2 dried red chiles
2 cups ground lamb or beef (about 1 pound)
1/3 cup cooked rice
10 to 12 large cabbage leaves (see directions)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 cups beef broth
In a food processor, combine the onion, garlic, tomato, quince, chestnuts, cilantro, dill, salt, pepper and chiles. Pulse until well mixed, but ensure the pieces still have their shape. Do not overprocess. Add the meat and rice, and mix again until well integrated.
If using bottled cabbage leaves, rinse and dry each leaf. If using fresh cabbage, separate the leaves and boil in lightly salted water until tender but still firm. Drain and pat dry. As a third alternative, freeze the whole head of cabbage, then let it thaw to make the leaves pliable enough to roll. If desired, cut the extremely large leaves into more manageable sections. (I like to use leaves that are 4 to 6 inches long for appetizer-size rolls and leaves that are 6 to 8 inches long for larger dinner-size rolls.)
Depending on the size of the leaf, place 2 to 3 tablespoons of filling about 2 inches from one edge and then roll the leaf lengthwise, tucking in the top and bottom as you roll to make compact squarish rolls.
Melt the butter in a wide pot or saute pan and add the vinegar, sugar and about half of the broth. Place rolls in the pan in one layer and pour over the remaining broth. Cover with a lid and cook over low heat until the meat is cooked through, 30 to 40 minutes.
Serve with boiled potatoes for a light meal or as part of a larger multicourse feast.
Monica Bhide is the author of “Modern Spice” (Simon & Schuster, 2009).