The pudgy cabbage roll is one of those universal foods found in widely disparate cultures, and likely originated with peasants as a way to use up scraps. These bundles of comfort left their tracks across the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Finland and the Middle East, migrating from family tables in Croatia, to Shabbat tables in Israel. At some point they landed in the UK, and traveled over to Ireland to put down new roots as part of a traditional St. Paddy’s Day Irish dinner.
Cabbage leaves are typically first softened by a quick blanch in boiling water, and then stuffed with a variety of fillings – usually beef, pork or lamb – along with some kind of grain, vegetables and spices. Some cabbage rolls are baked in the oven, draped by a thick tomato sauce and topped with cheese. Others are simmered in tight little packages on the stove. In Sweden they are commonly served with lingonberry jam; in the Middle East they come with yogurt. All are delicious, and worth making.
But that’s not what I did.
I wanted to reinvent them a bit, shake them up, and find an easier, quicker, more casual way of enjoying them. I wanted a cabbage roll I could eat on the run for a healthy, quick lunch; or serve as a heavy, warm appetizer for a party. My answer was cabbage cups of frilly Napa cabbage, that could be rolled around a filling. I chose a vegetarian filling of a puree of sweet potatoes and orange juice, topped with a mound of brown rice, crispy leeks, raisins, pepitas, and a Bulgarian salty feta; but you can choose any whimsy that appeals to you. Chicken salad, ground lamb mixed with roasted red peppers, or spicy chickpeas are all fair game here.
- 2 cups cooked sweet potatoes
- 1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
- 1 3/4 cups water
- 1 1/4 cups uncooked brown rice
- 1 tablespoon rice bran oil (or olive oil)
- 1 large leek, thinly sliced horizontally, white and light green parts only
- 1/2 cup golden raisins
- 1/4 cup peeled, grated, carrots
- 4 tablespoons pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds)
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
- 1/4 cup feta cheese (I used a salty Bulgarian feta)
- 8 leaves of Napa cabbage
- Combine the sweet potatoes and orange juice in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade, and purée.
- Rinse the rice well. Pour the water into a medium pot, and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the rice and reduce the heat and cover with a lid. Simmer until tender, roughly 30 minutes.
- Heat the rice bran oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the leeks. Sauté until lightly crispy, and add the raisins and carrots. Immediately remove from the heat and toss together for 30 seconds. Add to the rice.
- Tear eight leaves from the head of Napa cabbage, wash and thoroughly dry. Using a sharp knife, slice off the ridge of the thick central vein on the backs of each leaf. Place the leaves face up to form a cup. Spoon 1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons of sweet potato purée into each cup, and spread it in a circle about 2 1/2 inches in diameter, using the back of a spoon. Heap approximately 1/4 cup of the rice mixture on top of the purée, and sprinkle with pepitas, fresh thyme, and feta
- Place the cup in your hand, and gently squeeze it, allowing the sides of the leaf to flop over the food in a loose roll.