Although Russian cabbage rolls, or golubtzi, also known as kelem dolmasi in my native Azerbaijan, tend to be fairly labor-intensive, time consuming, and better suited for people who keep servants, slaves, or little children, every once in a while I like to spend half a day making them whip them up, specifically when cabbage is ripe in the garden and must be gathered in because of an impending frost.
On a different note, here’s a beautiful hot pad my daughter made for me with the help of my mother-in-law.
Isn’t it stunning? And I am not just saying this because my precious little angel made it.
And because it’s so beautiful, I don’t use it in the hot-pad capacity, reserving it as prop for my photoshoots.
Anyway, when making golubtzi, I like to start with rice. You can use either cooked or uncooked rice, but if you go with the uncooked, your rice will be a tad firmer when the dish is done.
To cook the rice, I add 1 part of white rice (medium or long grain, doesn’t matter) to 2 parts of cold water and cook it over low heat, uncovered, until done. In this case, I used 1/2 C of rice to 1 C of water, which gave me about 1 C of the finished product.
The rice is done when the liquid has been fully absorbed and the rice is fluffy. Watch that you don’t let it burn though, which will happen if you miss this point.
Next, grab a pound of ground beef…
A large onion…
We’ll only be using half of it though.
Note that while this was pretty darn delicious, I decided that next time I am going to saute the onions first for even greater flavor.
Oh, and by the way? I am now using my chef’s knife for tasks like this. I didn’t used to, but I began to like the weight and the bulk of it since I realized that it is capable of some pretty fine chopping and slicing. Until recently, I only used mine for mincing, as well as other, less traditional purposes, which, I admit, took a heavy toll on the knife:
Yes, my chef’s knife hasn’t seen much love, but I am making up for it now by using it every day. And I promise that I will never, ever use it to kill chickens again.
Speaking of knives, behold the world’s best knife sharpener…
The wheels take guesswork out of the angle, and the results are razor-sharp. You do need to replace it every five years or so, as the abrasives tend to wear out, but, at thirty bucks, it’s not a big deal. People replace multi-thousand-dollar cars more often than that.
Anyway, chop the onion and add it to the beef.
Chop 2-3 garlic cloves and throw them in as well. You can also mince them. Or press them. Whichever.
Cilantro – a must have for ground-beef patties and stuffings of all sorts. Although I find the taste of fresh cilantro a little too sharp, I know that it mellows out considerably during cooking, at which point it no longer tastes or smells like bugs.
There it goes… you don’t even have to mince it – just chop it.
Dump the prepared rice on top…
Then add some of this. I can’t cook without it.
It’s just so pretty… it reminds me of the Caspian sand.
Black pepper… not freshly-ground… from a can. But freshly-ground will pass in a pinch.
And cinnamon! It’s true – try it, you won’t regret it! Beef and cinnamon complement each other beautifully, giving your meat dishes a subtly-oriental flavor.
Blend everything thoroughly with your hands, kneading the mixture for some time until it is smooth and uniform like this. Cover and refrigerate the filling until ready to use.
Now let’s move on to our cabbage. These are cabbage rolls, after all.
I used one medium head from my garden. Can you feel the sanctimony flow?
Next, we’re gonna turn it over and cut a chunk off the bottom for easier leaf removal.
So that the leaves are no longer attached, you see.
Now put the cabbage head into a pot of water with the cut side facing up. It will float, but that’s OK.
I let the cabbage boil for about seven minutes, after which the leaves softened and became real easy to pull off with a pair of tongs.
However, after I removed a few leaves, I found that I didn’t cut enough of the bottom off, so I pulled the cabbage out and scored it around the core like so.
I then returned the cabbage to the pot, and proceeded as before.
The leaves closest to the center will be too small for wrapping, so when I got to this point, I stopped and tossed the rest of the head (pictured).
By now, the outside leaves were adequately soft, but the inner ones weren’t.
See how crisp and crunchy they look? This is not good. Not good at all.
I decided to return these to the pot and cook them a little longer – namely for the additional 20 minutes. Yes, that’s right.
That may have been just a tad too long, making the leaves a little more fragile to handle than I would have liked, but the resulting golubtzi were wonderfully tender.
Next, we are going to remove the tough vein forming the backbone of each leaf. This is much, much easier (and safer) to do after the leaves have been softened through boiling.
Deveined leaves, ready to be stuffed.
Place about this much filling into each leaf.
Starting at the base, begin wrapping the little package.
Place them on a plate, seam-side down, while they await their sizzling fate. You’ll see in a moment what I mean by that.
Melt some butter over medium heat…
Using tongs, transfer the rolls carefully into the pan.
Brown them lightly on both sides and remove to a plate.
Next, we’re gonna make the simmering sauce using crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, beef stock, and sour cream, which will make our golubtzi rich, smooth, and delicious.
When I need just a little bit of broth for a sauce, I like to reach for this particular product. It is kept in the fridge, and uses a mere teaspoon per cup of liquid. Now this still tastes a little fake and can be pretty salty, but it’s much better than other bouillons I’ve tried.
This is what it looks like.
See? Doesn’t look so bad, does it?
Pour the broth into the pan you used to saute the rolls and bring it to a simmer over medium heat, scraping the bottom with a flat wooden spatula. I ended up using 3 quarts.
Because they are in season, I’m gonna be using our garden tomatoes, but any kind of crushed tomatoes will work, and so will tomato sauce.
Now pay attention, because this is also how I prepare my tomatoes for canning, if you are into that sort of thing.
I like to crush them a little with a potato masher to release some of the liquid before bring them to a boil over low heat and cooking them for a bit until they start to break down.
I then use my immersion blender to simply process everything together – liquid, flesh, skins, everything. This watery sauce also makes a perfect base for Bolognese, which is why I can it this way.
Once you’ve deglazed the pan with broth, add the crushed tomatoes and a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste (not shown). In retrospect, I would also add a splash of white wine and use more tomatoes.
Now stir 1/2 C sour cream into the resulting sauce. It will look a bit curdly, but that’s a OK.
Return the rolls to the pan (the liquid should just about cover them), bring everything to a simmer, and cook, covered, for about 1 1/2 hours.
By then, the liquid will have reduced considerably.
Serve them hot with sour cream or garlic-yogurt sauce (1 clove of garlic pressed and mixed into 2 C of plain yogurt).
Russian Cabbage Rolls
For the rolls:
- 1 medium cabbage
- 1 C cooked white rice (either long or medium-grain)
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 small or 1/2 large onion, chopped
- 3 T of chopped/minced cilantro
- 2-3 garlic cloves, chopped
- Montreal Steak Seasoning or salt, to taste
- black pepper, to taste
- 1/2 to 1 t ground cinnamon
- 1 stick of butter (you got that right), for sauteing the rolls
For the sauce:
- 3 qt beef stock, either canned, boxed, homemade, or prepared from cubes or a beef base concentrate
- 1 1/2 to 2 C of tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes with their liquid (depending on how acidic you like it)
- 1 heaping T tomato paste
- 1/2 C sour cream
- a splash of white wine, optional
Prepare the filling by mixing together cooked rice, ground beef, cilantro, garlic, onions, Montreal Steak Seasoning or salt, pepper, and cinnamon. If desired, saute the onions and garlic until golden prior to adding them to the mixture. If you do so, add the garlic during the last minute of sauteing, as it tends to burn if added earlier. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
Meanwhile, trim the bottom off a head of cabbage, cover it with water, and boil for 5-7 minutes. Use tongs to pull off the leaves. Let the outer leaves drain, while covering the crunchier inner leaves with more water and boiling them for the additional 20 minutes. Remove from pot, drain, and let cool. Once the leaves are cool enough to handle, use a knife to remove the tough vein from the outside of each leaf.
To wrap, place a small amount of filling into the center of each leaf and wrap it carefully as you would a present. Set each roll seam-side down on a plate while you finish wrapping the rest.
Melt 1/4 stick of butter over medium heat in a pan and saute half of the rolls until lightly browned on both sides. Add another 1/4 stick of butter when you turn them. Use the rest of the butter to saute the remaining rolls. Remove to a plate.
Pour beef broth into the pot you used to brown the rolls and bring it to a simmer, scraping the bottom with a flat wooden spatula to release the flavorful brown bits. Stir in tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and sour cream. Add a splash of wine, if using. Return the rolls to the pot, and simmer them, covered, for 1 1/2 hours (leave the lid ajar after the first half-hour).
Serve with sour cream or garlic-yogurt sauce (1 clove of garlic pressed and mixed into 2 C of plain yogurt).
Note: Like many Russian dishes, these are even better the next day.