One of my most treasured memories as a child was watching my mother make cabbage rolls in our kitchen. I remember how she worked in an assembly line fashion, laying out each cabbage leaf, before stuffing it with a mixture of rice, meat and spices. After rolling the leaves in parcels that were roughly the size of my little-girl-hand, she would add them to a heavy stockpot and let them simmer in fragrant tomato sauce for hours.
Born out of a traditional Serbian recipe called ” sarma” that was passed down from her grandmother, my mother’s cabbage rolls were among my favorite things to eat as a child. They were the epitome of rustic comfort food, and symbolized a culinary ritual that tied me to my heritage. If I have one regret, it’s that I never learned how to make them. Still, the way they tasted and smelled will be forever written in my memory.
Several years later, I had the privilege of meeting someone who knew a thing or two about comfort food. Her name was Umm Mohammed, a lovely Palestinian lady who often prepared traditional Arabic dishes for my husband and his family’s restaurant in Montreal. Umm Mohammed’s cabbage rolls – called “malfouf” in Arabic – took me right back to my childhood. I remember how hers were a lot smaller than my mother’s, more like a cigarillo than a parcel. They were always neat, tight, and filled with aromatic herbs and spices.
While my mother’s cabbage rolls had a distinct Serbian influence, and Umm Mohammed’s were infused with flavors of Arabia, both versions shared the same comfort food factor. Although Umm Mohamed has since passed away, she left behind a legacy of Arabic comfort food within her community, and to those who knew and loved her.
Fast forward nearly a decade to the first time I met a beautiful Indonesian woman named Eti. When our firstborn son was just a few days old, Eti learned that I had been looking for a part-time housekeeper. She knocked on my door, eagerly introduced herself and proclaimed, “you look tired, can I make you some chicken soup?” With a newborn baby nestled tightly in my arms, I was more than happy to accept! Twelve years later, Eti has become part of our family and a person we all cherish. With a heart made of gold, it’s hard not to love her!
Prior to working with us, Eti spent time in Saudi Arabia as a nanny, before working with a lovely Lebanese family in Dubai. It was there that she learned how to prepare authentic Arabic dishes. As my culinary luck would have it, her delicious malfouf stole the show when it came to her cooking. Eti graciously taught me the ins and outs of making the perfect cabbage roll, evoking memories of my mother and how she cooked. Now a staple in my kitchen, I hope that someday, my children will share similar memories of this dish. With Eti’s permission, it’s my pleasure to share the recipe with you.
Tight and aromatic like Umm Mohammed’s, and steeped in a fragrant tomato sauce like my mother’s, these cabbage rolls represent exactly what comfort food is all about. Serve hot or at room temperature, and always, always serve with a lot of love.
Cabbage Rolls – Malfouf Recipe (makes 36 rolls. This can vary depending on the size of your leaves)
For the sauce:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ½ a small onion chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic minced
- Two large tomatoes, (about 400 grams) grated, or the canned equivalent
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 liter hot water
For the cabbage rolls:
* You will need a large pot filled with very hot water to blanch the cabbage leaves.
- ½ kg (500 grams) cabbage, leaves removed and roughly cut into 6 inch by 5 inch pieces
- ½ kg (500 grams) medium fat ground beef
- 1 cup Egyptian or medium grain rice, washed and drained
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ small onion, finely chopped
- 1 small tomato, chopped
- 1½ teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 teaspoons dried mint
- 1 teaspoon all spice
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1½ teaspoon cumin
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 large potato, washed, unpeeled, and cut into thick slices (make sure you have enough slices to line the base of your pan)
Make your sauce:
Sauté the onion in a tablespoon of olive oil for two minutes until soft. Throw in the garlic, and stir for an additional minute. Add the grated tomato and tomato paste and let simmer for ten minutes. Pour in the boiling water, remove from heat, and keep covered. While the sauce is simmering, start rolling your cabbage.
Blanch your leaves:
In a large stockpot filled with about two liters of barely simmering water, blanch your cabbage for approximately three minutes or just enough time to wilt the leaves (this makes them pliable and easy to roll). You will need to do this in two batches. Remove leaves from water.
Line your pan:
Line a large, heavy bottom stockpot with a tablespoon of olive oil and the potato slices. Set aside. The potatoes are not really not part of the actual recipe, they are there to make sure the cabbage rolls do not stick to the bottom of the pan. If the potatoes happen to be tender and delicious when the cabbage rolls are cooked, go ahead and eat them!
Roll your cabbage:
Mix the ground beef, rice, tomatoes, garlic, onion, nutmeg, dried mint, allspice, cumin, cinnamon, and salt together in a bowl. Lay a cabbage leaf on a flat surface. Spread approximately 1 tablespoon of the meat mixture at the base of the leaf. Roll tightly from the base all the way up to the top of the leaf, making sure the meat doesn’t leak out from the sides. Repeat with the remaining cabbage. *If you come across leaves that are torn or broken, simply take a bit of another leaf and use it as a “patch” to cover the tear and continue to roll. You should also remove any large “veins” that might make rolling more difficult.
Ready, steady, cook:
Gently place the cabbage into the stockpot on top of the potatoes. Make sure to place them tightly and in a circular pattern until all the rolls are nestled together in the pot. Invert a plate onto the rolls to keep them submerged. Pour over the tomato sauce. Add a bowl filled halfway with water to weigh the plate down, then cook over high heat until the sauce starts to boil.
Reduce heat to medium and cover. Simmer gently for two hours or until the cabbage rolls are tender when pierced with a fork and the sauce has reduced.
Gently remove the rolls from the pot and lay them on a serving platter. Serve hot or at room temperature. These cabbage rolls go beautifully with a simple green salad, or on a table as part of a massive family feast!
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