Comfort food is an overused phrase, no doubt. But when I'm cooking for a large crew, I make a beeline to the cabbages and the butcher's counter. As a kid, I ate my grandmother's stuffed cabbage almost weekly. It was the sweet-and-sour Jewish-esque version, and I loved it. I've had Polish versions and Russian versions, and frankly there's something synergistically wondrous about cabbage and beef or veal; they support and showcase each other. But this version has something different.
Farro — the term for several species of wheat found in Italy — is sturdy and nutty, with an almost cinnamon-like undertone, which fits right in with a sweet-and-sour flavor profile and stands up to all the components of this dish. (FYI: This is not one of those recipes for which you can just omit the meat. The sweet-and-sour flavors are extra strong to balance and heartiness of both the meat and the farro.)
This deep-dish casserole is ideal for a cozy, filling supper where everyone can relax and eat. It's great with a few cold beers or fizzy apple cider and a loaf of dark bread. It's even better on the second or third day, when juices have absorbed into the meat mixture.
Deep-Dish Cabbage and Farro Casserole
6 carrots (about 1 pound) peeled, trimmed, and cut into 1/4-inch rounds
For the meat layer:
1 1/2 pounds ground chuck, 85/15 percent fat preferred
1 1/2 pounds ground veal
Leaves of 6 sprigs fresh thyme, roughly chopped (see Recipe Notes)
1 large bunch fresh dill, stems and fronds, roughly chopped
Make the cabbage and tomato: Heat the oil in a large, heavy pan or enameled cast iron pot set over high until it shimmers. Add the onions and stir well. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until softened and translucent. Add the tomato paste, stir well, and cook for 1 minute. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the drained tomatoes and stir well. Reduce the heat to a simmer; add the brown sugar, cider vinegar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and nutmeg; and stir well. Add the cabbage and carrots and stir to coat. Cover and cook for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is very soft. Remove the cinnamon sticks and bay leaves and discard.
Meanwhile, make the farro: Heat the oil in a saucepan set over high heat until it shimmers. Add the onions and stir well. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 to 6 minutes, until translucent. Add the farro and cook, stirring for 1 to 2 minutes, until toasted. Add the stock and bring to a boil; then reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 15 minutes or until it is al dente. (It will continue to cook and absorb liquids while it bakes). Remove from the heat. Cover and set aside.
Prepare the meat mixture: In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground chuck, veal, and the farro and its cooking liquid, and mix gently.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 9x13-inch lasagna pan or a small roasting pan that is at least 3 inches deep with nonstick vegetable oil spray. Place on a rimmed baking sheet.
Spoon the meat and farro mixture across the bottom in an even layer and spoon the tomato and cabbage over it, spreading it evenly. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour, or until cooked through and piping hot.
- Nutmeg is available ground, but if you buy the whole nutmeg and grate or scrape it with a sharp knife yourself, the flavor and fragrance will be much stronger. Look for it in specialty spice stores, supermarket spice sections, or online.
- To remove the leaves from a sprig of fresh thyme, hold the sprig (or a few) at the top with one hand, and with the other hand, grasp the stem with your thumb and forefinger and gently slide your fingers down the stem. The leaves will be pushed against the direction they grow in, and will come off easily.