You can tell a good cabbage roll by its sauce. So it's important that you know how delicious this one is. There's all the tang you'd expect — that special bright and not-too-sweet flavor tomatoes and brown sugar bring. And then warmth from the cinnamon, which, when combined with tomatoes, adds a surprising savoriness that echoes throughout the dish.
Many of us recall fondly the stuffed cabbage rolls that our moms and grandmothers made, but are daunted by the task of making them. Others might remember them less fondly because the cook tended to boil the cabbage into gruesomeness with a lingering, um, scent.
Braising your cabbage fixes both problems. Instead of separating, blanching (perhaps over-cooking), and folding cabbage leaves around the stuffing, just cut a cabbage head into wedges and pop them in the oven to braise. The texture of the cabbage might surprise you. Instead of the wilted leaf, you're left with a tender wedge that doesn't entirely disappear with each forkful. In fact, in this instance, cabbage becomes an equal player in the dish.
Plunk the perfectly cooked wedges on plates, spoon the sauce over the top, and voila! You can serve it over rice (which is part of many stuffing recipes) or omit it to keep a lid on the carbs.
A standard green cabbage is fine for this recipe, but should you see any of the less common heirloom varieties, such as a Jersey Wakefield, at your store or winter farmers market, give them a go. Their flavor is exceptional and they hold their shape when cooked. Rather than round, these cabbages are tapered and conical, like a very large pine cone, and often are small enough to be the perfect portion for one or two people.
Unstuffed Cabbage Rolls Bowls
- For the oven-braised cabbage:
Cooking spray or vegetable oil
large green cabbage (about 2 1/2 pounds)
low-sodium chicken broth or water
freshly ground black pepper
- For the sauce and serving:
medium yellow onion, diced (about 2 cups)
lean ground beef or ground dark turkey
(15-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
packed light brown sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 medium lemon
Juice of 1 lemon lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
Freshly ground black pepper
hot, cooked white rice, for serving (optional)
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 325°F. Coat a 9x13-inch baking dish with cooking spray or oil; set aside.
Quarter the cabbage through the core. Cut each quarter in half, leaving a piece of the core attached to each wedge to hold it together, for a total of 8 wedges.
Arrange the wedges in a single layer in the baking dish, tucking them in tightly, if necessary. Pour the broth or water over the wedges and season with the salt and pepper. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake until the cabbage is tender but not falling apart, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, make the sauce.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook until softened, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add the ground meat and cook, breaking up the meat into small pieces with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 5 minutes.
Stir in the tomatoes, raisins, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Keep warm over very low heat until the cabbage is ready. Just before serving, stir the lemon zest and juice into the sauce. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.
To serve, spoon rice onto serving plates. Top with a wedge of cabbage and ladle the sauce over the top.
Make ahead: The sauce can be made up to 1 day ahead. Cool, cover, and refrigerate. Cook the cabbage fresh because it does not reheat well.
Variation: Instead of braising the cabbage, grill it! Heat a gas or charcoal grill (or grill pan) to medium. Lightly brush the cut sides of the wedges with vegetable oil. Arrange them cut-side down in a single layer on the grate. Cover and cook until the cabbage begins to wilt and soften and the leafy edges blacken a bit, 6 to 8 minutes. Flip each wedge over, cover, and cook the other side. Charred and crisp-tender are delicious, but burnt and raw hold no charm, so reduce the heat or move the wedges to the cool side of the grill as needed.
Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.