If you haven't yet eaten mujadara, I'd suggest that you remedy that as soon as possible. It's a very simple dish, considered "peasant food" throughout the Middle East, but it's incredibly flavourful and filling and packed with protein from all the lentils. I once had a large bowl left over after a rather sizeable get-together, and used it to stuff cabbage rolls on a whim. Let's just say that it's one of my better impromptu culinary experiments, and one that I'm happy to share here.
During a time of mourning or shock, it's amazingly helpful to have food that can be prepared quickly and easily, and cabbage rolls fit that bill perfectly: they freeze well, and can be microwaved to readiness in just a couple of minutes, so a baking dish full of them can provide a good week's worth of meals.
This is a vegan recipe, and uses a tomato sauce that's spiced with cumin. The nightshade-free, AIP paleo version follows at the end of this post.
Prepping the Cabbage:
My Ukrainian grandmother used to boil heads of cabbage to make her rolls, but although that leaves you with a very fragrant stock that you can use for other recipes, it also makes your house stink of cabbage water for days, and the leaves get very fragile and break apart easily when you try to fill them. I now use the freezer technique instead, and can't recommend it highly enough:
You'll core your head of cabbage, then place it into a plastic bag and pop it into the freezer for 48 hours. It really needs to freeze solidly right to the center in order for the leaves to break down, and then you'll thaw it for a full day on your countertop before you can make the rolls. Needless to say, this is a dish that needs a few days' worth of advance thought and prep time, but is well worth the wait.
Once thawed, the leaves will peel away very easily, and you can drape them over a bowl or stack them in a strainer until you're ready to work with them. To fill them, first pick up one leaf and drape it right-side-downward over a bowl so its thick spine is facing upward. Take a small knife and pare down the spine so that it's almost as thin as the surrounding leaf: this will allow you to roll it much more easily, and will also help with cooking consistency.
NOTE: You will undoubtedly end up with some broken leaves here and there, and that's a good thing—you can use bits of these to patch minor tears inside some of the leaves you work with, and you can also drape them over the rolls before baking so they don't scorch/dry out.
Mujadara Filling Ingredients:
- 1 large can of lentils, drained and rinsed
- 4 cups water
- 2 large Spanish onions (or more if you’d like this really onion-y)
- 2 cups cooked long-grain rice (Basmati works well)
- Olive oil
Heat the oil in large pan on medium-high heat, and add your onions. Bring the heat down a bit and caramelise them until they’re a deep, dark brown.
In a large bowl, combine your cooked rice, drained lentils, and browned onions. Season with salt and pepper and try not to eat the entire bowl by yourself.
Set this aside and allow it to cool before using it to fill your rolls.
This is a bit of an easy way out here, as the sauce you bake these in is really up to you. We tend to make big batches of basic sauce (just crushed tomatoes, onions, garlic, wine, tomato paste, and salt) and then freeze them for future use—once defrosted, the sauce can be augmented with various seasonings to suit the dish it's being added to.
For these Middle Eastern cabbage rolls, I add a bit of ground cumin, additional garlic powder, and a pinch each of sumac and chili pepper to a basic sauce so the seasonings are complementary. You can use canned pureed tomatoes and just doctor them a little bit until they taste right to you, or use a store-bought prepared sauce. It's your call.
Making the Rolls
Preheat your oven to 350F.
Take one of the cabbage leaves and cup it in the palm of your hand so that its base lines up with your wrist. Place a generous spoonful of filling about an inch inside, then roll the leaf: you'll start by folding the base inwards, then tucking in the sides as you continue rolling upwards.
Line a greased baking dish or lasagna pan with a few of the leftover leaves, and arrange the rolls on top of them as you finish rolling them. Once they're all in, pour your tomato sauce over the rolls until they're all just covered. If you have additional cabbage leaves left over, drape them over the rolls so they don't burn. If not, just add a little bit more sauce.
Cover the dish with aluminum foil, seal it as tightly as you can, and bake for 1 1/2 hours, or until the cabbage has cooked to a buttery softness: your knife should slide through it without much effort at all.
If you're serving these immediately, use a spatula and spoon to remove them gently, and serve hot. If you're going to be delivering them as comfort food, leave the rolls in the pan and allow them to cool completely before transporting them. Alternatively, you can also transfer them to a microwave-safe dish that the recipient can reheat easily.
AIP Paleo Variation:
For those of us who can't eat grains or legumes (...sigh...), these rolls can be stuffed with a variety of different fillings that are friendly to our individual food sensitivities. I often stuff mine with seasoned ground meat and riced cauliflower, or I make a version that the Sir and I can both eat by mixing the cauliflower with finely chopped roasted root vegetables.
For the sake of simplicity and keeping things vegan for this post, I'll share the roasted root vegetable filling version here. It's based on a recipe from the Traditional Ukrainian Cookery book, which my mother passed on to me now that she refuses to cook anymore and only eats pre-packaged hors d'oeuvres. Win-win!
- 1 head of cauliflower, cut into florets and pre-roasted*
- 2-3 cups chopped, pre-roasted root vegetables*
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive or coconut oil
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- A pinch of dried thyme
Heat the oil in a large pan or shallow pot, and then sautee the onion until translucent and slightly golden.
Combine the onion with your root veg and cauliflower mixture in a large bowl, season with salt and pepper, and allow to cool before stuffing your rolls.
Since nightshade vegetables are huge autoimmune triggers, those of us who follow the AIP diet have to be a bit creative with tomato substitutions. My go-to sauce for pasta, lasagna, and these cabbage rolls has a pumpkin puree base, and works remarkably well in lieu of tomato.
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 3-4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
- 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning OR 1/4 teaspoon each dried thyme, oregano, basil, and parsley
- 1 cup carrots, chopped
- 2-3 canned beets, chopped
- 1 large can pumpkin or squash puree
- 1 cup red wine (make it a good wine: if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it)
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- Vegetable, chicken, or beef stock if desired
Add the garlic and beets, stir around for a few minutes more, then add the pumpkin puree, wine, and balsamic vinegar. Let this mixture simmer on medium-low heat until the flavours have combined and the carrots are fork-tender.
Now for the adjustments: if you find that the sauce is too thick, add a little bit of stock, 1/4 cup at a time, until it's thin enough for your tastes. Remember that you're aiming for sauce, not soup.
If it's too acidic or sour, add 1 tsp of honey.
Season it with salt and pepper to taste, and then either use an immersion blender to puree it all into a homogenous consistency, or put it through a regular blender or food processor.
You can keep this sauce in a jar in the fridge for up to a week, and use it for the cabbage rolls, or lasagna, or in a baked pasta dish, etc. I like to make a double batch and freeze it for future use, so keep that option in mind as well.