Hi there. I am back (did I sound like I just awoke from a winter sleep or what?). I hope you all had a great time during the holidays. Happy New Year to you and your loved ones once again.
I was planning to begin the new year with a sweet recipe, but changed my mind because I’ve been wanting to post this savory recipe for so long and now that I found a Perfect Cabbage (more on this later), I have no reason or excuse to postpone it any more.
It is the recipe for kelem dolmasi, stuffed cabbage leaves (kelem means “cabbage” in Azeri, and dolma, comes from “dolmag” a Turkic word that means “to be stuffed”), a popular dish, loved by Azerbaijanis of all ages. In this dish, the cabbage leaves are stuffed with ground meat, rice, and fresh herbs. Let me mention that this is one way to make kelem dolmasi. In Azerbaijan, there is also a variation in which the cabbage leaves are stuffed with chestnuts, quince along with the meat, and the rolls are simmered down in sweet and sour sauce, made of vinegar and sugar (the latter will appear in my cookbook, so stay tuned).
I love kelem dolmasi but up until recently I’d made it occasionally only because I couldn’t find the right cabbage. You see, for this particular dolma, you need a cabbage that is not very tight, with leaves easy to pull off. Sadly, the cabbages I bought before were for the most part fist-tight heads from which I barely managed to pull off a few descent leaves and ended up with piles of damaged, torn, thick, bitter leaves that stared back at me. So for the longest time, I’d been on the lookout for the perfect cabbage that would spare me the loud squeals of frustration and the subsequent headaches.
I kept on looking. But desperate search continued, until my Chinese friend Xumei (ju-mei), took me on a gastronomic excursion to the Asian supermarket where she usually shops. And it was there that I found THE perfect cabbage! I eyed it suspiciously first, fearing a possible case of hallucination, when Xumei said excitedly, as if reading my mind, “It is Chinese cabbage and it is really really good.” It was a round Chinese cabbage, not a green-leafed bok choy. This one looked just like a regular green cabbage, except it was perfect, with leaves that only asked for a gentle pull with the hand to be removed.
As I stood in line to buy the many exotic Asian ingredients and a few Perfect Cabbage heads I stacked into my overflowing shopping cart, I was picturing myself devouring my favorite childhood dish – kelem dolmasi – soaking its juices with fresh crusty bread. Soon after I had arrived home, the dish was simmering in the pot. It didn’t take me long to have it ready on the table, all because the cabbage was perfect, just perfect. No leaf was damaged, no ear-tearing squeal was released, and no headache followed… Oh, well, before I get very emotional about the Perfect Cabbage… Here’s the recipe. As we say in Azerbaijan, Nush Olsun! Enjoy!
Cabbage Rolls Stuffed with Meat, Rice, and Fresh Herbs (Kelem Dolmasi)
Note: Pick cabbage that is not too hard and is softer to touch, with leaves not too tight together. They will be easier to pull off.
For the Stuffing:
1 pound (450g) ground beef or lamb (or combination), preferably not very lean
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped (2 cups)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
½ cup medium grain rice, thoroughly washed and drained
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro (coriander)
½ cup chopped fresh dill
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 large green cabbage (about 3 pounds /1kg 400 g)
2 tablespoons tomato paste (when in season, you can use 1 medium ripe tomatoe, peeled and grated, with juices and 1 tablespoon tomato paste)
1 ½ cup hot water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
First, prepare the stuffing. In a mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients for the filling. With your hand, knead thoroughly until well blended. Set aside.
Meanwhile, prepare the cabbage leaves. Fill a large saucepan with water, add a generous pinch of salt and bring to a boil. With a sharp knife, cut out the core of the cabbage and carefully pull off the leaves, keeping them whole and undamaged. Plunge the leaves into the boiling water in batches of 2-3, and blanch them for 5 minutes, until they have softened a little and are pliable. Remove the leaves with a slotted spoon and drain in a colander. Repeat with the remaining leaves.
Keep a medium saucepan at hand. When the leaves are cool enough to handle, place them onto a cutting board, and using a sharp knife, cut out the rough center vein in teh shape of a V from the leaves so they will be easier to roll up. You will need the cutouts veins later, so do not discard. If the leaves are too big, cut them in two along the center vein.
Place about 2 heaped tablespoons of the stuffing in the middle of each leaf and shape the filling slightly like a log. Fold in the sides, then roll tightly. Arrange the reserved cut out veins on the bottom of the saucepan (you can also arrange the damaged and torn leaves, or unused leaves on the bottom too), then place cabbage rolls on top, close together and seam side down, making several layers. If using fresh tomatoes along with tomato paste, toss a little in-between the layers.
Dissolve the tomato paste in 1 ½ cup hot water and pour over the top of the rolls. The water should come to a little less than half of the rolls, but not more as the rolls will release their own juice, too. If not enough, add more. Dot the top layer with butter. Place a small lid or a small ovenproof plate on top to keep the rolls tight and to prevent them from opening. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium to low and simmer for about 1 hour, or until the cabbage leaves are tender, the filling is cooked, and the liquid has somewhat reduced.
Place dolma on a serving platter and spoon some of the cooking liquid on top. Serve with bread on the side.