Garlicky Cabbage Rolls, some little gems.

My name is Arikhia, not Rita, she said. They say Rita in this country.

That was the first thing my Aunt Rita said when I interviewed her one afternoon several years ago. I was there to ask questions, to listen. And, as it turned out, to eat. There was an unexpected—yet I should have expected—huge lunch set out on the dining room table, just for the two of us. She had been cooking all morning, and yesterday too. Rita is my father’s aunt. From among the many gold-filled transcribed pages of our visit, here are a few little gems:

This is delicious! I said.

You eat, Aunt Rita said, and I’ll talk.

Everyone kept saying Oh Rita, this man wants to meet you and take you to America. His cousin brought him over to the house. He couldn’t speak Arabic, I couldn’t speak English. He was visiting his uncle in Dier Mimas. He was playing it cool. They showed him around to other villages and other girls, but he said no, he wanted the one he saw in Dier Mimas, Arikhia. So they came and asked my hand in marriage. And my mother said well ask her, do you want to marry this man and go to America? He was seventeen years older than me, and I was a teenager. I wanted to go. This was America! Your grandmother Nabeha was my sister, and she was already there and she used to write to us.

What was she like?

She was very emotional, that’s in the family, and she was such a beautiful person. Everyone loved her. In fact I have a picture of her and her sister Adlee. Her blood pressure was high. They didn’t have the medication they have now; she would have lived longer now. Please help yourself to more food.

Please, I’ve had so much.

Honey—you’ve gotta eat.

I’ve had about ten of those cabbage rolls.

No you didn’t have ten.

No no. I’ve had ten. It’s obscene how much I ate. That’s the best cabbage roll I’ve ever eaten. It’s garlicky. Did you put lemon juice on it?

No, I like it just like this. My kids like lemon juice. Do you? Want some more?

No, I have this, and this. What was your dad like, my great-grandfather?

I was daddy’s little girl. And he loved me. My brothers and sisters got jealous of me, because I was his youngest daughter. And I was energetic. And he liked people that were energetic. We talk about it once in a while, my brother Fawaz and Amad and I, how he cared for me. I used to sleep on his arms. He was an old man and I used to sleep on his arm here. He always bragged about me and they hated me for that. He died when I was twelve.

My dad in his old age, he couldn’t travel, and he sold his horse. He had an Arabian horse that he used to ride to go out into the land he owned. The horse was blueish. Blue was the color of the horse, see. We called him blue. Zarha. Then my father’s rheumatism got so bad, he couldn’t do much walking. So he was home most of the time so people came to our house to have coffee and visit with my dad. My dad, he was a historian. He remembered things. He knew things that he used to talk to people about. Telling stories about things that happened in the 1800s, 1860s, 1870s, 1890s, of wars and of massacres or whatever he knew. He was wealthy, self-made, and had a lot of friends in south Lebanon, all of the big shots. He leased land to them, the whole village and the cows. Then when he couldn’t go out, they came to our house. We served coffee, always coffee, and prickly pears on platters like this. And whatever else we had.

We cooked every day. My mother used to make the big bread. Our house was always full of people. I really learned how to cook when I came to this country, from one time to another, one time to another, no recipes, just from memory, how my mother used to do it.

Garlicky Cabbage Rolls
Cabbage rolls are not our most beautiful food, but they are so savory and delectable that their looks are quickly forgiven. Cabbage rolls can be cooked in water, chicken stock, or tomato juice. They can be as garlicky as you like, or not at all. Lemon can be added to the broth or served alongside the rolls, or both. The way to create the best flavor in the rolls is to coax many layers of flavor—by salting the blanching water for the leaves, soaking the rice in the spices for the stuffing, and salting the cooking water. A little butter doesn’t hurt anything, either.

1 head of cabbage leaves, blanched
1 cup converted rice (such as Uncle Ben’s)
4 oz. (1 stick) butter, melted
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for cooking
½ teaspoon pepper
1 lb. ground sirloin
¼ cup water

8-10 garlic cloves, peeled

Prepare the leaves:
Blanch the head of cabbage and remove the leaves one by one. In order to roll the blanched cabbage leaves, the thick rib must be cut out of the center of each leaf. On the small leaves, the rib can simply be shaved down rather than cut out entirely. Then trim the leaves to remove any torn edges and to make some of the larger leaves a more manageable size. Each leaf should be about six inches long. Some will be shorter, and some will be longer. This is fine. Place the trimmings and any very large, dark leaves in the bottom of a medium-sized heavy pot.

Make the stuffing:
Rinse the rice twice to remove some of the starch. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the uncooked rice with the melted butter, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Let this mixture sit for about 10 minutes for the rice to absorb the flavorings. Taste the rice and adjust the seasoning, keeping in mind that the seasoning will also flavor a pound a meat, so it should be strong. Add the meat and mix with the rice mixture until combined. Add the water to loosen the mixture, and combine. To taste the mixture for seasoning, place a small ball of meat in boiling water (use the cooking water from blanching the cabbage) for a minute, then taste and adjust seasoning.

Stuff and cook the leaves:
Lay about a tablespoon of the stuffing on a cabbage leaf and spread the stuffing into a long row lengthwise along the leaf. Roll up the leaf around the meat (no need to tuck the edges). Stuff each leaf in this manner, then place each roll in the prepared pan snugly against one another. Run each layer of rolls in opposite directions. Scatter the garlic cloves over the rolls throughout the pot. Place a small plate over the rolls to hold them down while they cook. Cover with cold water (add lemon to the water if using, or use chicken stock or tomato juice instead of water). Add about 2 tablespoons of salt to the water. Make small meatballs with any leftover stuffing and place those in the pan.

Place the pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Taste and add more salt if needed. Reduce heat to simmer, cover the pot, and cook the leaves until the rice and meat are fully cooked, about 30 minutes. Serve warm with the cooked garlic cloves and labne.

Find a PDF of this recipe here.

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15 Responses to Garlicky Cabbage Rolls, some little gems.

  1. Gerald Wakeen says:

    I vote for big fat cabbage rolls cooked in a tomato base.
    I see these are a bit smaller, I can see how you ate 10! :)
    The only time I have had these rolls in a restaurant (Arlington, Virginia) the preparation must have been similar to yours, no evidence of tomato. But good!
    Jerry Wakeen

  2. allison F. Lange says:

    OMG… You even make cabbage rolls look beautiful & YUMMY!!!!!
    LOVE LOVE LOVE reading your daily blogs!!!!
    xoxo’s….

  3. Diane Nassir says:

    Yes, yummy! And always, the technique comes to you from your childhood at your Mother’s elbow in the kitchen, while standing on a kitchen chair to see and to reach and to work. I helped her make everything: bread, kibbee, stuffed koosa, bell peppers, grape leaves, cabbage. Always, I see her in my mind as I cook. My husband and I bought our first home when we were 45–moved in during the coldest winter we ever experienced in NW NV, (-17 below zero, three feet of snow on the ground)–one morning I got up before daylight, and made Syrian bread to suffuse the house with the smell of fresh bread on a cold day just as my Mother did 40 years before. And Maureen, I felt the hand of my Mother on my shoulder, and saw in my mind’s eye, my grandmothers going back 10,000 years. It is the laying on of hands from mother to daughter thru time. So I love your story of your Aunt Rita. That is how we learn, from all the women who precede us. What a legacy! Sorry to be so wordy, but your writing always evokes so much emotion and so many memories for me. Thank you.

  4. Emiline Reifsnyder says:

    Maureen — this is the sweetest story about you and your Aunt Rita — thanks for sharing!!

    Emiline Haddad Reifsnyder

    The cabbage rolls sound awesome — I am drooling!!

  5. Maureen, again you have outdone yourself. What a story, and i love the recipe, we always had the lemony cabbage rolls, we are going to try this, my mouth is watering already.

  6. virginia lasher says:

    Maureen I loved your cabbage rolls post. I could sit and listen to your Aunt Rita for hours. She is so interesting. She is such a good cook and you wrote so beautifully. Cabbage rolls are my favorite. You are amazing. much love virginia

  7. Ginny says:

    If I want to freeze these, should I cook them first or freeze them raw like I do grape leaves. This recipe sounds great. Anxious to try it!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      I would freeze them raw because the cabbage is so delicate once it’s cooked, I’m afraid freezing and reheating would cause them to fall apart! Let me know how it goes!!

  8. I too would feel emotional about my Téta Nabiha’s cabbage rolls; just don’t know how to write about it as well as you. Love the story and your writing. Take care, great cabbage rolls, would take a “zouwedeh” home!

  9. Mary Beth says:

    Thanks so much for your beautiful writing, Maureen. Aunt Rita was pure love which your words completely capture. Our hearts are broken. We were so blessed to have had such an amazing and beautiful aunt. Thank you for sharing this delicious memory.

  10. Jim says:

    Maureen,

    Loved Aunt Rita. What a blessing that you spent this time with her and captured these memories to share here. What a treasure. Now I want to make cabbage rolls this weekend. Thank you!

  11. Maureen, We all loved Aunt Rita and will miss her, I talked to her several days ago and I am coming to Lansing 8/18. I was going to see her but alas it was not meant to be. We will never forget her, and the food oh how she could cook. You write beautifuly about her.

  12. Margy says:

    Now I wish I had made cabbage rolls with Aunt Rita…. Great story. Would have loved to have been at the table with you two. Lovely memory of her.

  13. craig stevens corey says:

    Dear Maureen, with our hearts broken at the loss of our beloved mother (your aunt Rita,) my sister and i sat down today-the very day after her funeral-and we found a tunjara (pot) of frozen, uncooked malfouf (cabbage rolls) in the freezer at her home. My brother in law cooked it up (understandably Cindy and i still grieving.) . We had our last taste of mom’s delicious artisan caggage rolls. It was both somber, and heartwarming for us. And we appreciate your expose of that wonderful afternoon of cooking that you had with mom. It touched our hearts that you brought it alive again. Through you, at least, some of mom’s well-known Lebanese table will live on. God Bless you Maureen. Love Craig and Cindy.

  14. Verna says:

    Dear Maureen, When I read your stories they bring tears to my eyes. You bring my grandmother and her sisters and brothers alive again not just through the stories but the food. They were born in Lebanon and came to America just before WW I. You are so right about not meeting a vegetable they didn’t try to stuff. I was always warned to be careful to not poke a hole in the coosa when I cored it. I still have one of those old
    long thing coring tools. I so miss those dinners and times I spent with them. Thank you so much.

 

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