“If any of Safta’s dishes is a must-try, it’s [the stuffed cabbage with tomatoes and onions]. It doesn’t just bring back the flavors of my childhood—it also epitomizes that same feeling of warmth and comfort, so anyone who eats it can feel like they’re eating at their own grandmother’s house. Although the process may look somewhat long and involved, there’s not much to it, and the bulk of your time is completely hands-off as the cabbage putters away on the stove. It’s even better the next day, once the flavors have settled.”
Alon Shaya of Saba, Miss River and Chandelier Bar in New Orleans and Safta in Denver.
¼ cup kosher salt, divided
2 large heads of cabbage
2 medium tomatoes or 1 cup canned whole tomatoes
4 slices white bread
1 yellow onion
¾ cup olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground allspice
⅓ cup dry arborio rice
1½ pounds ground beef
preferably 80% lean
1 cup lightly packed fresh parsley leaves, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 whole sprigs fresh oregano
1 anchovy filet
½ cup tomato paste
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
5 to 6 fresh mint leaves, torn
- Bring 1 gallon water and 2 tablespoons salt to a boil. Remove and discard the cabbage’s tough or bruised outer leaves; then, starting at the top of each head, gently peel away one leaf at a time so that they stay as intact as possible. You’ll need leaves that are at least 7 or 8 inches long, so stop peeling as you near the center.
- When the water comes to a boil, add the leaves and cook them for 3 minutes, until they’re pliable but still have some life in them. Drain and let cool.
- To make the filling, halve the tomatoes along their equators and, cupping the round end in your palm, rub them on the coarsest side of a box grater until you’re left with about 1 cup of purée and a tomato skin that you can discard. (If you’re using canned tomatoes, get them whole and crush them by hand; the texture is better this way than if you use canned tomato purée.)
- Cube the bread into ½- to 1-inch pieces and toss it with the grated tomatoes to evenly soak. Cut the onion in half, setting one half aside for later, and grate the other half (finely chop whatever you can’t grate) into the bowl with the tomatoes. Stir in ¼ cup olive oil, 1 tablespoon salt, paprika, coriander, and allspice.
- Rinse the rice thoroughly until the water runs clear; this gets rid of starches that can gum up the filling and should take 4 or 5 changes of water. Combine it with the rest of the filling.
- Add the ground beef and parsley to the bowl and use your hands or a spatula to delicately fold it all together. It’s really important not to manhandle the meat. Cover in plastic and refrigerate while you make the sauce.
- Pull out a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven and find a heatproof plate that will fit inside; you’ll be using it later. Warm the remaining ½ cup oil in the pot over medium heat. Thinly slice the other half of the onion and add it to the oil with the garlic, oregano, and anchovy; cook until the onions are browned on the edges and the anchovy melts. Add the tomato paste, stirring to break it up, and let toast for a couple minutes.
- In a large bowl, crush the canned tomatoes between your fingers and combine them with the last 1 tablespoon salt, pomegranate molasses, and mint. When the tomato paste smells fragrant and caramelized in the pan, stir in the canned tomato mixture and ½ cup water and bring to a simmer.
- To stuff the cabbage, scoop ¼ cup filling (slightly more for the bigger leaves) right at the base of each leaf. Roll them like a burrito, up the center and tucking in the sides as you go, taking care not to tear them. Lower each one, seam side down, in the pot with the sauce, using your spoon to push them to the bottom and snuggle them together wherever they’ll fit.
- Take out the heatproof plate you found earlier and place it upside-down over the cabbage rolls to keep them submerged. Decrease the heat to the lowest it will go, cover the pot, and cook for 1 hour to an hour and 15 minutes—when you cut into one, the beef should be fully cooked through and the rice should be intact but creamy. If it needs more time, re-cover and cook for another 10 minutes.
- Take the pot off the heat and let the cabbage rest for 30 minutes or so, with the lid still on, to give everything a chance to settle. Serve the stuffed cabbage warm, taking care not to let the leaves unravel, and spoon some of the remaining sauce over the top.
- Reprinted with permission Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel by Alon Shaya Copyright © 2018. Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.