It was the first real Sunday of fall. You could tell because of the cool mist in the morning, the pale blue of the afternoon sky and the fact that there was a really bad football game on the tube. The chores were done. All I could think about was cooking something.
I mean really cooking something, not the usual grill and salad we live on through the hot months; cooking food that is not only comforting to eat but also to prepare. That’s when process is what’s needed.
Let’s face it: Sometimes we cook to eat, other times we cook just to cook.
And so for the next hour or so, I stirred together a meat mixture, made a tomato sauce, peeled cabbage leaves and stuffed them. Then I stuck the whole thing in the oven and picked up a good book, periodically hauling myself up out of my chair to inspect, but mainly just to sniff.
Cabbage rolls are a perfect project for a day like that. They’re involving, but not too. They’ll keep you busy, but not to the point of distraction. The technical skills required are easily mastered by even the most novice cook. As always, there’s something about touching food--really getting involved with it--that makes you slow down, breathe a little easier.
And, of course, they are delicious in that long-cooked homey way that is so perfect for fall--even here, where the temperatures may still be in the 70s.
Start making cabbage rolls by bringing a big pot of water to the boil. In one of the soundest bits of cooking advice ever offered, Edouard de Pomiane, in his “Cooking in 10 Minutes” (Oxford and Pazifische Presse, 1930), recommends that you do this every time you step into the kitchen: “What’s it for? I don’t know, but it’s bound to be good for something,” he says. In this case, it’s for peeling the cabbage.
While cabbage has a rather coarse reputation among the uninitiated--when cooked improperly it can get pretty sulfurous--it is more than just a tough lettuce. And it has attributes no other vegetable can claim. One is a sweet vegetal flavor. The other is a surpassing silkiness of texture.
That texture is what you’re drawing out by this initial cooking. Cabbage, like all leafy greens, is composed of little cellulose cells holding water. It’s the water that makes these greens firm, much as a balloon is given shape by air. When these leaves are heated, the water in the cells expands, bursting the cellulose walls and collapsing the structure.
While more delicate greens, such as lettuces or herbs, disintegrate into formless rags, cabbage is sturdy enough to retain some character. Kitchen alchemy has turned those leaves, once so coarse, into silk--the perfect wrapper for a meat stuffing.
How you make your stuffing is pretty much up to you. The important thing to remember is that you’ll need about a pound of ground meat for six servings (perfect for one head of cabbage), and that it will be stretched out with 3/4 cup of uncooked rice, moistened with half a cup of wine or broth, seasoned with two tablespoons of salt, and bound with about one egg.
Stir this just until it comes together and there is no moisture left in the bottom of the bowl. Don’t overwork it. Just like sausages or meatloaf, it will get dense and heavy if you play with it too much.
By now the water should be boiling. Set the meat aside and turn to the cabbage. Use a small knife to dig out as much of the core as you can. It doesn’t need to be either perfect or neat--you’ll have another chance to clean it up later.
First make sure you’ve got something to rescue the cabbage with--one of those Chinese “spider” skimmers is perfect--then dump the whole head of cabbage into the boiling water. It’ll naturally turn core-side down. That’s fine since that’s the densest part and will take longest to cook. But what you want to pay attention to are the leaves on top. After about 5 to 10 seconds, they will soften and turn silky, slightly loosening from the head.
When this happens, remove the whole head from the water and rinse it briefly under cold water. Carefully peel back the cooked outer leaves, separate them from the head at the base, and set them aside on a towel to drain. When you hit leaves that still have some crispness left, return the head to the water for more cooking. Keep repeating this process until you get down to the inner clenched fist of cabbage leaves, which will be so small, so thick and convoluted that no amount of cooking will make them right for stuffing. These you’ll shred and add to the sauce.
To make the rolls, sort through the leaves, setting aside both the very biggest and the very smallest. You never can tell exactly how many leaves it will take to use up all of the stuffing mix, so have some in reserve. You want to start with the middling leaves so the rolls will be consistent in size.
When all the rolls are ready, place them in the skillet of tomato sauce. You want to handle them gently, so they don’t spring a leak, but don’t worry about squeezing them together in the pan--you’ll need to in order to fit them all in. You can even stack one or two on top, if you like. Cabbage rolls are forgiving.
Lay some of the unused leaves on top to create a moist cover, slap on a lid and then stick the pan in the oven to bake. The rolls will take a while, so maybe you can catch some of that football game or, even better, a good book and a nap. Don’t worry too much about the dish; honestly, have you ever heard of overcooked cabbage rolls?
Your nose will tell you when they’re done. Some foods you cook to sight (you know they’re done when they turn brown); some foods you cook to touch (pull them when they’re firm). Cabbage rolls you cook to the smell. After about an hour, you’ll notice that the bright fresh fragrance of tomato sauce has turned into something deeper, darker and more developed--the smell of long cooking. At my house that’s the perfume of fall.
Parsons is author of “How to Read a French Fry” (Houghton-Mifflin, $25).