As often happens, it all started with a shopping trip. At the Ed supermarket in Saint-Aignan, I noticed what they call choux blancs — heads of "white" cabbage — on sale for a good price. They were 1.50 € apiece, and one of them was obviously a lot bigger than any of the others. Since I wouldn't be paying by weight, that's the one I couldn't resist.
Why in French it's called a white cabbage but in America a green cabbage, I'm not sure. It's sort of the standard cabbage, the kind you would make cole slaw out of. Not Savoy cabbage, not Napa cabbage — just cabbage. Smooth leaves, lightly colored.
I guess we call it green to distinguish it from red cabbage. In fact, looking at the pictures here you can see why it would be called white. It's probably a different variety. Or maybe it's just the winter gloom of northern Europe that causes the leaves to stay so pale.
Be all that as it may. It seems that there are two ways to get the leaves off a cabbage. The fastest is to blanch it. Cut out the core and put the whole head into a big pot of boiling water for 10 minutes or so. Turn the heat off once it's boiling. Then take the cabbage out and let it cool for a few minutes. The outer leaves will be very cooked, and under them the leaves will be less cooked as you get toward the center of the head. They should be easy to take off and flatten out, even if some of the ones that are cooked the most tend to tear easily.
The other way to get the leaves off a head of cabbage is to put the whole raw head in the freezer for 24 hours. Then take it out and let it thaw in the refrigerator for another 24 hours. The leaves will be pliable and will peel off easily. You just have to do some planning to start the process at least 48 hours before you plan to eat the cabbage rolls or loaf.
One thing that makes it easier to form the cabbage rolls is to trim off the back of the thick fibrous rib of each leaf. Just kind of shave it off with a sharp knife. Then the leaf will be more flexible for folding and wrapping.
This makes a good stuffing:
1 lb. ground beefLightly sauté the onions, celery, and carrots and let them cool. Off the heat, add the breadcrumbs to the vegetables and toss them in. They will pick up the flavor and some of the oil or butter you've cooked the vegetables in. Once it's cool enough, mix all that in with the ground meat.
½ lb. lean ground pork
½ lb. pork sausage meat (sweet Italian or Toulouse)
3 onions, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
3 carrots, coarsely grated
1½ cups breadcrumbs
fennel seeds, thyme, hot red pepper flakes to taste
salt and pepper
The stuffing should be fairly dry, and the breadcrumbs will also soak up a lot of the juices the meat renders as it cooks. I think ground turkey, chicken, or veal would be very good — and why not ground lamb instead of beef? — in these cabbage rolls.
Finally, make little football-shaped balls of the stuffing. Place the stuffing at the bottom of the leaf. Start rolling it, tucking in the sides of the leaf as you go. Each little packet should hold together without needing to be skewered or tied. When you put them in the baking dish, crowd them in so that they won't come apart during cooking.
I like to cook them in tomato sauce, but you could use meat or vegetable broth, or just water. Tomorrow, the finished rolls...