December 03, 2002
Holubtsi (Ukrainian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)

Every so often, particularly around Christmastime, I get this unstoppable urge to eat Ukrainian food. My family is Ukrainian, and I grew up with holiday staples like varenyky (more commonly known by their Polish name, pierogis), borscht with ushka (actually tiny mushroom tortellini, but the direct translation is "little ears"), and holubtsi. Luckily, I missed out on other traditional dishes, like pig's feet in gelatin and blood sausage, for which I'm quite thankful. I strongly suspect that any child confronted with dishes like these at a tender age would be frightened away from interesting foods altogether.

When you look at Slavic cuisine as a whole, a few things stand out. Root vegetables ... cabbage ... and labor-intensity. Most folks in this day and age would shudder at the thought of constructing hundreds of little dumplings from scratch, or using cuticle scissors to cut the bitter white base from pounds of rose petals when making rose jam. And yet, my grandmother, who worked in a restaurant making thousands of varenyky a day, was nonetheless happy to come home and do the same for her children and grandchildren with little complaint. Alas, I have been blessed with neither boundless patience nor skilled hand-to-eye coordination. This explains why most of the pierogis I eat during the year are from a box in the freezer aisle. I've helped my relatives make varenyky in the past, and it's certainly more manageable when a few people are working together. But just today, at the beginning of exam period, I was not ready for such a challenge.

Instead, I decided to tackle something a bit simpler. Holubtsi, in my family, are made by wrapping leaves of cabbage around a roll of cooked and seasoned rice or kasha, served with a creamy mushroom sauce (and sour cream, for the indulgent like me). I had tried to make them once before, but had trouble dealing with the cabbage leaves; some say you should boil the whole cabbage before pulling the leaves off, but I think this is a set-up for disaster. Today, I pulled the leaves off the raw cabbage, then steamed them, and ended up with most of the leaves in one piece (rather than ripped to shreds, as happened last time). I also decided to modify the filling a bit, adding sautéed mushrooms and onions to the rice, in an effort to connect the dish with the sauce. I'm sure there are "official" holubtsi recipes out there, but I was frankly quite satisfied with my own version. Maybe this year I'll offer to make them for Christmas....


Nadia's Newfangled Holubtsi
takes longer than you think, serves many

What you need:
1 large green cabbage
1 cup (dry) white rice
An onion or two
Mushrooms -- white button is fine, about three cups or more
Dried mushrooms, if you like
Heavy and/or sour cream
1 cup or so of beef broth
Bit of flour
Salt, pepper, etc.

First, start cooking about a cup (dry) of white rice as per your usual method. I've used basmati and it's come out just as well, and would probably also be good with wild or brown rice. (If you're using any dried mushrooms, now would also be a good time to start soaking them in hot water)

While the rice is cooking, take a large green cabbage and cut around the base to separate the leaves from the core. Then, carefully begin separating individual leaves from the rest of the cabbage, trying as hard as you can to keep each leaf in one piece. This may take a while, but I've found the best method is to grab each leaf by the thick base and slowly pull it up, making sure that the delicate edges don't get stuck to the rest of the cabbage. Does this sound complicated? It is.

When you've got about a third or a half of the cabbage leaves off (in theory, each leaf will make one roll; in practice, I usually need more), toss them in a large pot and steam with a bit of water until they're soft and translucent. When they're done, lay them out flat on some paper towels to dry and cool off.

Then, roughly chop an onion or two and about half the white mushrooms. sautée with a bit of butter and oil until slightly browned, and set aside.

By this time, your rice should be done. If you don't want to burn your fingers, it's best to let it cool off before you start working, but masochists can just keep going. Mix up the rice in a big bowl with your sautéed onions and mushrooms, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Taste! This is important -- you'll probably need a good bit of salt.

Then, the rolling. Lay out a cooled cabbage leaf and start thinking creatively. Which way does it look like it wants to fold? Are there rips and tears you need to take into account (probably)? Is it big enough? After staring at the leaf and bemoaning your lack of artistic talent, dump a few tablespoons of the rice mixture near the center of the cabbage leaf, and start rolling into a log shape, folding the ends in as best you can. The cabbage leaves should be pliable and somewhat sticky, which eliminates the need for glue. Your goal is a compact, snug little bundle of cabbage about 4 inches long and 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide. If you're like me, it may take a few tries to get this right, and may sometimes require more than one leaf.

After you've used up all your cabbage and rice, place the holubtsi in a shallow baking dish, like puppies in a basket. Stick in a 350 or 375 degree oven until they're browned a lot on the bottom and a bit on the top, about 35 minutes.

Whew. Briefly enjoy your sense of accomplishment. Then look over at the mushrooms you have left. Accept impending feeling of dread that you are not yet done cooking. Grudgingly slice the remaining mushrooms into slices. (Also slicing finger optional). If using dried mushrooms, drain and chop those, saving the liquid. Go to bathroom to bandage finger. About 5-10 minutes before you're ready to serve, sautée the mushrooms in butter and oil until browned. Add a bit more butter and a tablespoon or two of flour, make a little roux. Then add beef broth, mushroom juice, or whatever else you have on hand. Finish off with some heavy cream or sour cream. Pour the sauce over the holubtsi and serve with dollops of sour cream. Eat, enjoy, and call your grandmother.