Slow Cooker Cabbage Rolls
Tender leaves of cabbage wrapped around a filling of seasoned ground beef, sausage, and rice simmered in a rich tomato and beef broth create this old-world favorite. Hearty and delicious, cabbage rolls to me are simply some of home cooking at its best. This dish is a favorite of many, with roots reaching across many countries. Found in Eastern, Northern, and Central Europe, the Balkans, and Asia, there are as many versions of this roll as there are nationalities that hold this delicacy near and dear.
I have always loved cabbage rolls but find I seldom make them. Not really sure why that is, perhaps I always felt it was too much effort or I would have to make too many. One thing I do know is that I have always struggled with the cabbage. Trying to get the leaves separated with out damage to have enough to use has been a challenge for me. I will admit that more than once I had intended to make cabbage rolls, got frustrated, and ended up with a cole slaw. Recently I discovered a method that has drastically changed my attitude towards preparing this treat. I mean I love everything about all the ingredients, so why would I not make these.
I found the simplest way to separate the leaves is to first carve out the core from the head with a paring knife. Then I fill a stock pot with water (leaving room for the cabbage) to a boil. Once boiling I place the entire head of cabbage into the water, after only a couple minutes the outer leaves begin to soften. I use tongs and a large slotted spoon to coax the leaves from the head. Since the core has been removed, as the leaves become pliable they separate from the head quite easily. Once the leaves are free and are somewhat soft I place them in cold water to stop the cooking, then transfer in to a colander to drain. I just keep repeating the process until the leaves seem too small to use, allowing some time for each layer to become soft enough to roll. Then I spread the leaves out on a tea towel to dry before rolling them up. I am amazed how well this method works, barrier to cabbage removed!
Throwing together the filling is quite simple, like making a meatloaf. I used a mixture of half ground beef and half pork sausage along with minced onions, garlic, rice, and a few spices. You really could do what every you want. Asian versions use tofu, vegetables, seafood, and fish so I mean there certainly is no right or wrong. I think for a lot of us food is a memory, and we tend to like what is familiar. My grandfather on my mothers side was Eastern European and this is how my grandmother would prepare them, so I flavored in that direction. However now that I have conquered the cabbage I am certainly interested in branching out.
I find the only good way to mix the ingredients is with my hands. I know some people find that horrifying, but I promise I do wash my hands first. I suppose I could try using a spoon, but really in my estimation there is only one way. You’ve just got to get in there and squish it all together, plus I find it kinda fun.
Once everything is all mixed up it is time to assemble. I use a scoop that holds about a quarter cup. I like making things uniform, it might be my OCD but I do find things cook better if they are similar sized, and they also look great on the plate. Again whatever size you want, the Lebanese version is rolled about the size of a cigar.
I lay the leaf out and remove the thickest part of the stem from the leaf which doesn’t roll well anyway. I close the “V” by bringing the sides together and slightly overlap them. The leaves are pliable so don’t be too afraid to work them around so they lay out the way that works best for you to roll. Then I add the filling and shape it a bit. Rolling away from me, I turn the leaf to just cover the filling, fold the sides in, and roll the rest of the way. You will find as you play with the leaves you will figure what works best for you, the big thing is not to be afraid of them.
Cabbage rolls can be made in the oven or in a steamer, but I like to use the slow cooker method. It allows the rolls to simmer all day to a tender perfection filling the house with a fantastic aroma. It also keeps my oven free in case I decide to “bust a move” and make some bread or rolls to go with. I place the rolls “seam side” down in the crock pot. Some recipes I have seen call for using a toothpick to hold the rolls together for cooking, but I don’t find any need for that. By placing them tightly side by side they keep each other rolled just fine. You can add a second layer if you need, just keep them all nested tightly.
Once the crock pot is all loaded I spread a couple cans of diced tomatoes over the top. I used two small cans because that is what I had, I am sure one large can would probably be just fine. Then I toss in a handful of diced onion, and a couple cloves of mined garlic. Then I add beef stock until the rolls are almost covered, you can use water but I find I like the flavor the stock adds. If you prefer you could use chicken or vegetable stock. I just like the deep flavor the tomato and beef stock give to the dish. One of the hardest parts of describing any recipe is giving exact amounts of how much liquid to add. This will depend on how big your crock pot is and how tight you have placed the rolls. So just eyeball it, that is what I do. I top off the pot with a sprinkle of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, and a dusting of paprika. I tend to go light on the salt, you can always add, but it is impossible to remove.
I start the crock pot out on high until the liquid starts to bubble. How long you ask, well this is just like how much liquid do I add. About an hour did it for this round, but again depending on the size of your pot and how full it is going to vary. An hour will give you a good bench mark of time to check. Then down to low for about 5 hours. I know that seems long, but the meat needs time to cook and you want the cabbage completely tender. Some recipes call for browning the meat mixture in a skillet before rolling in the leaves. The cook time for these recipes is quite a bit less, but I like the deep flavor the the filling gets from slowly cooing in the tomato beef broth.
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 pound pork sausage
- 1 cup onion diced
- 1 cup white rice cooked
- 4 cloves of garlic minced
- 1 egg
- 2 teaspoon caraway seed
- 1 teaspoon ground paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 16 cabbage leaves blanched (1 to 2 heads depending on size)
- 2 cans diced tomatoes 20 to 28 ounces
- Beef stock see cooks notes
- ¼ cup onion diced
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 teaspoon ground paprika
- Salt & Pepper
- ½ cup Greek yogurt or sour cream
- 2 green onions finely sliced
- 1 Tablespoon fresh dill chopped
Place meats, egg and all spices in a large bowl and combine well.
Separate and blanch cabbage leaves. Place on a towel to dry, pat dry if needed.
Place about 1/4 cup of uncooked filling on each leaf and roll.
Place seam side down in a crock pot. Repeat until you are out of filling.
Pour the tomatoes and beef stock over the cabbage rolls. Add enough liquid to almost cover the rolls.
Add onion, garlic and spices.
Cover and cook on high for about 1 hour or until liquid is bubbling.
Reduce to low and cook for 4 to 5 hours.
Test rolls with a pair of tongs, rolls will be feel firm when done and the cabbage will be pale and somewhat translucent.
Use tongs to carefully remove cabbage rolls from the cooker.
In a small bowl combine yogurt, green onion, and dill.
Place a couple of cabbage rolls in a shallow bowl and spoon some of the tomato beef broth over. Top with a dollop of the yogurt. Enjoy!
This recipe makes around 16 cabbage rolls. If you want to make less decrease the amounts for the filling. Add enough stock so that the cabbage rolls are almost covered. Amount of stock needed and cooking times will vary depending on the size of your crock pot and the number of cabbage rolls.