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Cabbage rolls are thrifty cook’s friend

At least one quintessential recipe was omitted from this week’s food section spread about Ukrainian classics.

Cabbage rolls are considered pure comfort food across eastern Europe, including Poland, Hungary, the Balkans, Turkey and more. While my family doesn’t cite eastern European descent, I prepare this dish several times per year because it’s good — and it just makes sense.

From a thrifty, seasonal cook’s perspective, cabbage is one of the vegetables that can be procured fresh during the cold months. And the technique of rolling the leaves around a bit of ground meat, cooked grain and other vegetables is a time-honored method of extending leftovers or scarce ingredients.

In fact, cabbages poised to flower in my mother-in-law’s winter garden prompted me to make a pan of cabbage rolls last month. Because the head was no longer tightly closed, I didn’t have to simmer the entire thing before separating the leaves. These leaves separated easily and, quickly blanched, were the perfect size, shape and texture for this dish that even my two sons enjoyed.

But the pan was large enough that we couldn’t finish it all before our enthusiasm flagged. I certainly could have taken the preemptive measure of freezing some of the rolls flat in freezer bags for coating in sauce and cooking down the road. As a make-ahead dish, cabbage rolls are ideal. Prepare these to the point of covering the filled rolls with sauce, then store the pot or pan in the refrigerator a day ahead of cooking.

While these instructions call for arranging the cabbage rolls in a pot or Dutch oven, I think a glass or ceramic baking dish also works well. Cover it with foil for the first phase of cooking, then remove the foil to allow the sauce to firm up a bit. Although it isn’t strictly traditional, I like to top mine with a little mozzarella cheese. Ground lamb is my family’s favorite filling.

Tribune News Service

Cabbage Rolls (Golubtsi)

3 cups cooked rice, from 1 cup uncooked

Salt, as needed

1/4 cup white vinegar

1 medium cabbage

1 pound ground pork, ground beef, ground turkey or a combination

4 medium carrots, divided

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 tablespoon butter

1 1/2 cups marinara sauce, your choice (preferably homemade), divided

1 large egg

1 tablespoon sour cream

If the rice is uncooked, cook according to package directions. Set aside. Preheat oven to 450 F.

Fill a large pot or Dutch oven two-thirds with water. Add 1/2 tablespoon salt and the vinegar; bring to a boil.

Peel and discard top 2 leaves from the cabbage. Cut out core with a knife. Place cabbage in boiling water, bottom down; cook for 5 minutes, then rotate and cook for another 5 minutes. Pull off leaves and place them on a platter to cool. If interior leaves are not soft, return cabbage to water and boil a few more minutes. Leaves are done when they are soft and dull colored. Reserve 4 cups of water from pot.

Mix the ground meats and rice together in a large bowl.

Peel, grate and sauté 2 of the carrots in 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil and the butter over medium-high heat. Once they are soft, add 1/2 cup of the marinara sauce and sauté for 1 more minute.

Add carrot-marinara mixture to rice and meat. Add the egg and 1/2 tablespoon salt. Mix well.

Remove tough stem from larger cabbage leaves. Place about 2 tablespoons meat mixture (more for larger leaves) in center of each leaf of cabbage. Roll leaf like a burrito, stuffing in both ends to form a package of meat and rice encased in cabbage. Arrange cabbage rolls in a large pot or Dutch oven.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet and peel, grate and sauté remaining 2 grated carrots with 1 teaspoon salt. Stir until soft. Add the sour cream and remaining 1 cup marinara sauce. Sauté for 1 more minute and remove from heat. Pour carrot-tomato sauce over cabbage rolls.

To cook, add enough reserved water to almost cover cabbage rolls. Cover pot, place on a rack in bottom third of preheated oven and cook for 20 to 25 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 F and cook for 1 hour more.

Alternatively, if cooking on stovetop, bring pot to a light boil, then cover and simmer for 40 minutes over medium heat.

Makes 12 servings.

— Recipe adapted by Tribune News Service from a recipe by Natasha Kravchuk, via natashaskitchen.com