Cabbage rolls entered my life one beautiful Sunday afternoon at the Holy Trinity Church Harvest Festival near Clayton, Wisconsin. Holy Trinity is a member of the Orthodox Church in America. Founded by Carpatho-Russian immigrants who came to northwest Wisconsin at the end of the 19th century, Holy Trinity Church now has about 130 members. Virtually all who are able join together to make thousands of cabbage rolls and dozens of pies which for me are the two top items on the menu of the Harvest Festival dinner.
On that first occasion we were guests of Steve, publisher of the RiverTown Newspaper group for whom I worked at the time. His grandparents were among the founders of Holy Trinity, and he and his family are all active members. After the festival I asked Steve for the recipe. He shared several variations on the cabbage rolls made by members of Holy Trinity. One calls for 90 pounds of ground beef and yields 720 servings, but Steve’s (or his mother’s?) recipe is one designed for a family gathering.
Like all good cooks, Steve explained that one can vary ingredients slightly to suit individual preferences. For instance, Steve likes to use extra garlic and sometimes uses venison instead of ground beef. This recipe is a little unusual because it uses dried dill weed as one of the spices in the meat filling. The cooks at Holy Trinity also put two or three fresh stems of dill in the roaster to flavor the sauce. Wonderful.
Following my hard-learned rule to stick to the recipe the first time, I ended up with cabbage rolls that my wife and I felt were equal to or even better than those from the church. The second time I made them I increased the amount of the filling and adjusted the seasoning slightly, since once you are steaming cabbage leaves it is just as easy to steam a dozen extra, there is plenty of room for more rolls in the roaster, and the rolls and sauce freeze well. Then it is easy to treat your family to cabbage rolls by heating them in the microwave.
2 lbs. lean ground beef (or venison)
12 oz. pork sausage
3/4 cup chopped onion
1 1/2 T minced garlic
1 cup white rice
1 1/4 tsp. salt plus extra for sauce
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. dried dill weed (divided)
3/4 tsp. basil
3/4 tsp oregano
1 head green cabbage (10” diameter works well)
2 or 3 medium tomatoes
2 or 3 medium green bell peppers
1 can tomato soup
2 cups tomato juice
2 cups water.
First make the filling. Put the rice in a small saucepan. Add 1 1/2 cups water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and simmer until the water is absorbed, usually about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Chop the onion rather finely (no larger than 1/4 inch dice) and mince the garlic. In a large bowl mix the ground beef and sausage with the eggs, rice, onion, garlic and spices, using only 1 tsp. of the dill weed. Set aside in a cool place or refrigerator until the cabbage leaf wrappers are prepared.
Wash the head of cabbage thoroughly and remove any damaged outer leaves. Remove the core with a narrow-bladed knife. Place a rack or metal pie plate in the bottom of a canner or dutch oven. Add about a half inch of water and bring the water to a boil. Set the cabbage with the core side down in the canner and cover. Steam until the outer leaves become limp. Remove the head from the canner and peel off the outer leaves. Return the head to the canner and repeat until you have about 30 leaves.
With a sharp knife, shave the raised rib off each cabbage leaf and put the ribs in the bottom of the roaster. Before you start assembling the rolls, remove the seeds from a green pepper and chop it into 1/2” pieces. Remove the stem scar and chop a tomato also into 1/2” pieces. Mix the pepper and tomato with the cabbage ribs on the bottom of the roaster.
Now preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
To assemble the rolls, put about 2 rounded tablespoons of the meat mixture on a leaf, fold the sides inward, then roll the leaf tightly and place it on the vegetable layer in the roaster. Once the first layer is finished, continue layering rolls until you have used all the filling. Depending on how well you estimate the amount of filling, you may need to prepare a few extra leaves.
When all the rolls are in the roaster, chop one or two tomatoes and peppers as you did for the base and spread them over the rolls. Mix the can of soup with the water and tomato juice, generous dashes of salt and pepper and 1/2 teaspoon dill weed. Pour the sauce over the rolls, cover and roast at 350 degrees for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Check occasionally to baste the rolls and make sure that there is enough liquid. Add water or juice if necessary.
NOTES: When I can find it, I like to use fresh dill in the meat and sauce. Use about two teaspoons of finely chopped fresh dill in the meat and a teaspoonful in the sauce. After pouring the sauce over the rolls, garnish them with a few sprigs of dill weed. Jerri freezes cabbage rolls in packages of four; she freezes the sauce separately in small freezer containers holding about a half cup each. With a green salad, some good bread and a glass of beer, you can have a gourmet dinner in 15 minutes.