Cabbage Rolls in Tomato Broth
The most traditional, most beloved stuffed Lebanese cabbage rolls in tomato broth are easy to make following these simple steps. To make my Garlicky Cabbage Rolls in a water-based broth, click here.
So many cultures have their version of a cabbage roll, and with good reason. Cabbage makes the perfect wrapper for fillings, especially the traditional meat and rice filling that we love so much. Lebanese grapeleaf rolls get so much attention, and they are so good!, but cabbage rolls are just as if not more flavorful. Follow a few simple steps, from selecting the cabbage to serving, and you’ll be rolling up a storm.
The Cabbage Treatment.
Select a big cabbage. The larger leaves can be cut in half and there are more flat leaves on a larger head.
First things first: we need to get each leaf off the cabbage and those need to be softened. To get there, cut out the core with a sharp knife cutting at an angle all the way around it.
Meanwhile get a the biggest pot in the kitchen, fill it with water and bring that to a boil. This is probably the most impatience-inducing aspect of the project! It takes a minute, and then a few more, to bring the thing to boil.
Dunk the head of cabbage into the boiling water and submerge it with tongs. After a few minutes, start removing one leaf at a time until you’ve pulled them all. Wait a few seconds between pulls to allow that outer leaf to soften before pulling it away.
Then, each leaf has a thick rib in the middle that needs to be cut out. I generally cut all the way down the leaf, cutting the rib out and the leaf in half. On smaller leaves the rib can simply be shaved down to make it easier to roll.
Here’s the thing: where I come from, the makers of all things stuffed didn’t do that without a little bit of butter. A meaty filling ratio is typically: 1 pound lean ground beef or lamb, 1 cup medium grain or converted rice, 1/2 cup melted butter. The butter can be replaced with olive oil no problem. Seasoning is also flexible. In my world it has always been simple: salt, pepper, cinnamon. Allspice is common, and so is 7 spice or baharat.
It’s surprising how little filling each roll should have in our Lebanese version of cabbage rolls. These are narrow, thinner rolls and full of cabbage flavor. I use about one tablespoon per leaf, spread in a line along one edge of the leaf. How much and where to place the filling depends on your leaf shape and size, so experiment to see what works best.
To roll the cabbage and filling, simply tuck the initial edge up, over, and under the filling tightly, then roll up the leaf without folding in the edges. These lay flat. The filling should stay clear of these ends so that it doesn’t fall out. Remember that rice will expand when it cooks so a little extra space on each end is a good thing.
The bottom of the pot is lined with the large green exterior cabbage leaves. Rolls are laid on top, seam side down and placed tightly against one another. Stud the layers of rolls with peeled garlic cloves. Ahhh the flavor! Aunt Hilda also salted each layer lightly. I always always forget to do that and, well, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Keeping the rolls in place is assisted with a plate overturned right on top of the rolls while they cook. The rolls are covered just to the top of the rolls (not the top of the pot) with liquid. Here we’re using tomato juice. You can use tomato sauce, thinned out with a little water. Also wonderful: chicken or beef stock. Or Aunt Rita’s favorite: water, simply water. The garlic cloves do their job to flavor the liquid no matter what you use.
Be sure after the rolls are cooked to remove the cover and let them rest and cool off just a bit. This way they will hold their shape better when removed from the pot with tongs.
Cabbage Rolls in Tomato Broth
- 1 large 2- to 3-pound cabbage
- 1 pound ground sirloin or other lean beef or lamb
- 1 cup medium grain or converted rice
- 4 oz. butter, melted (salted or unsalted is fine)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to season the tomato juice
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint
- 8-10 cloves garlic, peeled
- 4 cups tomato juice
Prepare the cabbage:
- Cut the core from the cabbage with a sharp knife.
- In a large pot of boiling water, blanch the cored 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. On large leaves, cut the rib out and keep cutting the leaf in half lengthwise. 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 filling:
- Rinse the rice twice to remove some of the starch. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the uncooked rice with the melted butter, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and mint. Let this mixture sit for about 10 minutes for the rice to absorb the flavorings. Add the meat and mix with the rice mixture until combined.
Roll and cook:
- 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 without tucking the edges in. Stuff and roll each leaf, 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 the tomato juice. Add about 2 tablespoons of salt to the tomato juice. Make small meatballs with any leftover stuffing and place those in the pan.
- Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, cover the pot,and cook the leaves until the rice and meat are fully cooked, about 45 minutes. Remove the cover and allow the rolls to rest and cool slightly before serving.
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I'm so glad you're here! You'll find among these pages the fresh and classic Lebanese recipes we can't get enough of! My mission is to share my tried + true recipes -- and to help our Lebanese food-loving community keep these culinary traditions alive and on the table. What recipes are you looking for? Let me know!
In part 1 of the roll and cook section you say to add the tomato juice over the plate. I get that but Then you say to add 2 tablespoons of salt to the water. I’m not sure which water you are referring to?
PS…..thank you for your recipes!
Good catch! That should read, and now does, “tomato juice” and not “water.” Thank you!
Hi there! Love this. Can they be frozen? Or can a portion of the steps be done ahead of time? Thank you!
Hi Dawn, thank you! Hmmm. I freeze grapeleaves after they’re cooked but I’d worry about the cabbage falling apart, more delicate. You could make the filling though and freeze that ahead.
Also Dawn you could roll the cabbage and put them in the pan a couple of days in advance and refrigerate. Then cover with tomato and cook earlier in the day of making or the day before. Just reheat when you’re ready to serve. Undercook them just a touch if cooking in advance and reheating, to avoid the cabbage falling apart.
I make Polish cabbage rolls but first I freeze the head of cabbage. Then you don’t have to worry about steam burning yourself or coring the cabbage. Just take the cabbage out and let it thaw ahead of time. The leaves peel off so easy and roll so easy.
Great tip Jacqueline, thank you!