People have been known to cry over their bowls of golubtsi at Kachka, overcome by deep-seated memories of babushkas long passed, and families separated by oceans. The smell alone is a time machine—earthy, tangy, and transporting. It’s amazing that a humble cabbage roll could stir up so much emotion, and there isn’t a restaurant critic or food writer on this planet who could motivate me more. It’s these moments that keep me going on the toughest of days.
I couldn’t help tinkering just a bit, but these are pretty much just exactly what my mama makes. It’s not the most visually arresting dish, but I’m okay with that. These are never coming off the menu.
- Place the cabbage(s) in a stockpot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Cook at a rolling boil for 10 to 15 minutes until the leaves soften (larger = longer), then remove and allow to cool. Peel and discard the outermost leaves (they get a bit blitzed in cooking), then separate the remaining leaves, leaf by leaf if you’re left with something about the size of a baseball. With a paring knife, shave down any thick ribs, so that the leaves are pliable. Take the trimmed ribs and any too-small-to-stuff inner leaves, and slice them to the same thickness as your onions. Set aside.
- Make the sauce: Heat a large pot over a medium flame. Add enough oil to coat the bottom, then add the carrot, onion, garlic, and cabbage trim. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften and the onions turn translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and jam, along with the water. Increase the heat to bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce it until it’s just high enough to maintain a healthy simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes to combine the flavors. Add salt to taste (you’ll have to be somewhat aggressive to counteract the sweetness). While the sauce is simmering, prepare the filling of your choosing.
- Place the ground meats in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix until uniform, about 30 seconds. Add the rice and salt, and continue mixing to combine.
- Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat, and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they fully soften and are just beginning to get golden, about 20 minutes, lowering the heat as needed so that they don’t color before becoming entirely translucent. Add the mushrooms and garlic, and sauté until the mushrooms are cooked through and beginning to get a bit of color, and the onions are fully caramelized, about 20 minutes more. Cool the pan to room temperature, add the rice and herbs, and season to taste.
- Preheat your oven to 425°F. Grab the largest casserole dish/dutch oven/roasting pan you have, and lay down about one-third of the sauce on the bottom. Set aside.
- Take one of the precooked cabbage leaves on a clean work surface, and place about ⅓ cup of the filling in the center (the exact amount will depend upon the size of the leaf—you want to be able to form a neat little package). Roll up the cabbage leaf tightly around the filling, burrito style. When you’ve made 3 or 4 in the same fashion, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.
- When the skillet is hot, pour in enough oil to coat the bottom, and place the stuffed cabbage parcels in it, seam side down. Let them cook for a few minutes per side, until golden brown—this helps seal the bundles, and also imparts a delicious caramelized flavor, so don’t skimp! When browned, transfer them to your waiting sauce-lined dish. Repeat with the remaining cabbage and filling. If your dish isn’t large enough to hold all the rolls, you can pile some of them on top in a second layer.
- When you’ve finished filling and searing all of the cabbage rolls, pour the remaining sauce over the top. Cover the pan with a lid, then transfer to the oven. Bake for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 350°F and bake another 1 to 2 hours for vegan golubtsi, or another 3 hours for meat-filled golubtsi.
- Serve hot, garnished with a dollop of smetana and a sprinkling of fresh dill.
- If you’re not up for all of the filling and folding, golubtsi can also be made lenivo, the “lazy” way. There is a whole canon of classic dishes that have lazy versions (I love the self-awareness of owning your sloth). Simply make the sauce as above, but use half a head of fresh cabbage, shredded, instead of the trim. Make the meat filling as written, form it into 1½-inch-diameter meatballs, give them a quick sear on all sides in an oil-slicked pan over medium-high heat, then gently transfer them to the sauce, and continue simmering for another hour (longer doesn’t hurt).
- Lazy golubtsi are a natural fit for a meatball sub (a Super Bowl snack I’ve been known to make): Take a toasted hoagie bun and give it a swipe of adjika and a few saucy meatballs. Top with melty cheese, and stick the sandwiches under the broiler to melt.
Excerpted from the book KACHKA by Bonnie Frumkin Morales. Copyright © 2017 by Bonnie Frumkin Morales. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. Photography by Leela Cyd.