It’s snowing for the first time this winter in Istanbul, and as I sit here watching everything become buried under a layer of thick, white fluff, I think of winters in Minnesota: the crisp air, cold feet, wearing a million layers, frozen nose hairs, peppermint mochas, shoveling the driveway, baking cardamom cookies, my sister’s leg warmers, stinging red cheeks, lemon-ginger tea, slippers, and obviously, the snow.
Sometime around the beginning of last year, I was making stuffed cabbage in Minnesota during a beautiful snowfall just like this one. Stuffed leaves of any kind are great in all weather, but winter is when things like cabbage, collard greens, kale, and chard are at their prime. These kinds of leaves are much easier to stuff and roll than grape leaves (which are best made in the spring anyway), because they tend to be larger, and you don’t have to worry about folding in the edges to keep the stuffing from falling out during cooking.
I can see the snow still falling endlessly outside my window, and it seems like a good time to post my recipe for stuffed cabbage in a simple broth. You can use it for other winter greens as well, and you can always mix tomato sauce into the cooking liquid if you’d prefer, since some people don’t like plain broth. This recipe is best served hot, although I’ve included a vegetarian variation at the end of this post that is delicious as a cold side or appetizer.
1 medium sized cabbage
half a batch of my stuffing recipe
approx. 4-5 cups of good quality meat or chicken broth seasoned to taste with salt and pepper, although you can use vegetable broth if you like
two tablespoons of allspice or “mixed baharat”
10 cloves of garlic, peeled
5-6 lamb or beef chops/ribs or any kind of bone-in meat (optional but adds good flavor) – I know some people use oxtails
Core your cabbage. You can do this by either hollowing out the center with a knife, or by quartering the cabbage and cutting out the core. The cabbage I used here was quite small, so I just hollowed out the center, although with bigger ones it can be pretty difficult to do.
Boil the whole cabbage or the quarters in water until the leaves become tender and pliable. I like to add a spoonful of cumin powder to the boiling water.
Remove from pot, strain. Separate the leaves out. Cut out any large, tough stems from each leaf. Do not discard!
Put a few spoonfuls of oil in the bottom of a large cooking pot, then use the stems you just cut out to line the bottom of the pot so the cabbage leaves don’t stick and burn. Also layer your meat pieces on top, if you’re using them.
Place a small amount of stuffing onto each leaf, and roll it up like a cigar. Layer the rolls quite tightly in your pot.
Combine the allspice with the broth, then pour it over the cabbage. The liquid should just surpass the top layer of cabbage, so make sure to add enough broth or top it up with water if necessary. Sprinkle in the garlic cloves.
Put the pot on high heat and let the broth come to a boil, then turn the heat down, put a heavy plate directly on top of the cabbage to ensure that it’s all pressed down, and cover the pot with a lid. Let it cook on low heat for about an hour to an hour and a half. The cooking time will vary, so test a cabbage roll by cutting it open and checking if the rice inside is fully cooked. If not, let it cook more.
Serve steaming hot with plenty of lemon wedges and fresh yogurt.
Yalanji: a vegetarian alternative
Mix up a stuffing of rice OR bulgur; chopped mint, parsley, and dill; very finely diced tomato, cucumber, and carrot; grated onion, pine nuts, salt, pepper, allspice, a pinch of cumin, cinnamon, and coriander, and a few tablespoons of olive oil.
Use this to stuff the leaves, then cook them just like in the recipe above, using vegetable broth or water for cooking mixed with a quarter cup of olive oil.
Fun fact: yalancı (pronounced ya-lawn-juh) is Turkish for liar. I guess the vegetarian stuffed leaves are lying because they’re pretending to be proper mahshi but they don’t actually have meat in them ;)