Most winters, Jackie and I eat stuffed cabbage at least once (plus a few more times for the leftovers). The way I make it has changed over the decades, moving from something like my mother's version with raisins in the sauce to variations on the one given in George Lang's Cuisine of Hungary, with sauerkraut -- and paprika, natch. But the method has been pretty constant: blanched cabbage leaves wrapped around an ovoid of meat stuffing, often eked out with rice, then braised.
This season I changed gears and made something that appears to be fancier and more complicated but that turns out to be quicker and less trouble to assemble: A whole cabbage (or part of one) taken apart into leaves which are layered with a (riceless) stuffing and formed back into a sphere before cooking. It looks terrific and is great fun to serve. There are oohs and aahs from all quarters when an apparently entire cabbage is sliced into stuffing-layered wedges.
You can adapt your favorite recipe to this technique; I made it twice, the first time braising the re-formed cabbage in sauerkraut in my customary quasi-Hungarian manner, and the second time using stock and aromatic vegetables for a result that was more along French lines (at least compared with the Hungarian version). The first was made with savoy cabbage because that's what I had in the house, but this is a little flimsy and too quick to overcook. So the version I describe here was made with standard green cabbage, which is sturdier.
To make the stuffing, I ground a generous pound (18 ounces to be exact, which you don't need to be) of pork butt (shoulder) with 2 ounces of bacon, keeping the meat very cold. To this I added a medium onion and a small clove of garlic, both minced and cooked in a little butter with 2 tablespoons of bacon cut into thin matchsticks, then cooled. I seasoned the stuffing with quite a lot of thyme (less thyme and plenty of parsley, or sage alone would have been other good options), lots of salt and black pepper, 1 teaspoon of sweet Hungarian paprika and five or six juniper berries and two cloves ground in a spice grinder. I bound the mixture with an egg and a handful of breadcrumbs. The best, perhaps the only, way to combine everything thoroughly is with your hand. I made this mixture a day in advance on the theory that the flavors would bloom in the fridge overnight.
I stripped around twenty leaves from a cabbage -- carefully in order to minimize tearing (I didn't need them all, in the end). Note that it is far, far easier to do this from the stem end: cut through the base of the leaf where it is attached to the core, then ease it off the head. The base is sturdy and offers better odds of an intact leaf. Some people blanch the whole head, which makes it easier to take apart, but you probably won't need the whole thing unless you're doubling these quantities, so it is better to keep the remaining part of the head raw.
Simmer the leaves in salted water for three or four minutes, then put them in a bowl of cold water to cool rapidly. Use a knife to thin the thickest parts of the ribs -- these can be unpleasantly fibrous. Drain them in a colander or let them dry on a towel; they don't need to be bone-dry. So far, everything is the same as making regular stuffed cabbage rolls. Except you don't have to make two dozen of them: just a single big one.
Line a deep medium-sized bowl with a damp cloth. If you have sturdy cheesecloth, that would be perfect, but if you have only the gauzy kind use an unstarched cotton kitchen towel that has not been scented by detergent or fabric softener. Line that, in turn, with the largest three or four of the blanched cabbage leaves, whose stem ends should extend far enough beyond the rim of the bowl that you'll be able to fold them in over the stuffing eventually; you will probably need to cut a slit through the central rib to help each leaf lie reasonably flat. If there are any holes in the leaves caused either by critters at the farm or by you when you removed them, just patch them with pieces of cabbage. Add about a quarter of the stuffing and press it down; this will immediately stabilize the construction. Continue to add layers of cabbage and stuffing, with more in the center, where the equator of the finished spheroid will be, and less toward the poles; finish with a layer of cabbage. I wound up with four layers of stuffing. Fold the overhanging leaves over the top, then gather the cloth, forming a bundle. Twist it tight and tie it with string.
Put it into a pot with a couple of inches of flavorful salted liquid. I used vegetable stock, but water plus chopped onions, carrots and so forth will work too. Cover the pot tightly and simmer/steam the bundle for 35 minutes, turning it once half way through. This will firm it up in preparation for its final cooking and will flavor the liquid with juices from the stuffing - and with cabbage of course. Remove the bundle to a bowl (the one you used to form it would make sense, so long as you've washed it) to cool, and strain the cooking liquid into any container. Dry the pot, put it back on medium-low heat and sweat a cup or two of chopped aromatic vegetables in butter (or lard). Sprinkle with a tablespoon of flour (optional), cook for another minute and add 2/3 cup of white wine and boil it down for a couple of minutes. Now add the reserved cooking liquid, herbs (thyme and parsley this time) and some more water or stock and simmer for an hour or so. I also added half a cup of tomato sauce, which rounded the flavor nicely. Strain this back into the pot: you will finish cooking the cabbage in it.
As dinnertime approaches, unwrap the cooled cabbage globe and set it, pretty side up, in the cooking liquid. Bring to the simmer, cover the pot and cook over low heat for 45 minutes (or, once it is simmering, put the covered pot into a 350 degree F oven for a similar time). Taste the cooking liquid for seasoning: it is now your sauce. Carefully remove the sphere to a platter or cutting board, cut it into wedges and serve with sauce and steamed potatoes.
There are so many possible variations, some simpler than this, some far more complicated. But whatever the flavorings and the sauce, serving a "whole" cabbage filled with a succulent stuffing is wonderful fun.
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