Mahshi Malfouf (Lebanese Stuffed Cabbage Leaves)

Mahshi Malfouf (Lebanese Stuffed Cabbage Leaves)
To make malfouf mahshi, cabbage leaves are stuffed with warm, spiced lamb and rice, then simmered in a tangy tomato broth until melt-in-your-mouth tender. (Courtesy of Julie Ann Sageer)

Mahshi Malfouf (Lebanese Stuffed Cabbage Leaves)

Many people associate stuffed cabbage leaves with Eastern European cuisine, but my mahshi malfouf, which translates literally as “stuffed cabbage,” is a classic Lebanese dish that will entice even the strictest cabbage cynic out there. I use Savoy cabbage—usually plucked from Mama’s garden—in this harvest-time dish, as I find it sweeter and more tender than many other cabbage varieties. Stuffed with a savory blend of lean lamb, long-grain rice, and chopped tomatoes, these tasty parcels are then slowly simmered in a broth spiked with tangy pomegranate molasses. If you can’t find ground lamb (or prefer beef), feel free to substitute with 80/20 percent ground beef.
Makes 60 stuffed cabbage leaves (6 servings)
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt, divided
  • 1 head Savoy cabbage (about 1 1/2 pounds)
  • 2 pounds finely ground lamb
  • 2 cups uncooked long-grain rice, rinsed in cold water
  • 3 vine-ripened tomatoes, finely diced
  • 10 garlic cloves, 5 finely minced, 5 left whole
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • Ripe tomato slices, for serving
  • Fresh mint sprigs, for serving
  • Khebez arabi (Lebanese pocket bread), for serving
For the Cabbage Cooking Liquid
  • 2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (dibis rahman)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 6 cups cold water
Fill a large pot with 8 cups of cold water and 1 teaspoon of the sea salt and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, fill a large mixing bowl with cold water and ice cubes and set aside.

Place the cabbage on a thick cutting board and remove the central core with a small, sharp paring knife, by making deep cuts around the core, then pulling the core out with your fingers. Place the cored cabbage under cold running water and wash thoroughly, but do not separate the leaves.

Once the water is boiling, place the entire head of cabbage, core side down, into the water and submerge for several minutes. As the leaves separate from the head, remove them from the hot water and transfer them to the ice-water bath immediately to stop cooking, and retain their shape and light green color. Once you have removed all of the leaves, reserve the heart of the cabbage and set aside.

Strain the blanched leaves from the ice water and place on a paper towel-lined baking sheet to absorb any excess water. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground meat, rice, tomatoes, and garlic. Season with the remaining salt, the pepper, and allspice and mix all the ingredients together using your hands, so they are completely incorporated into a smooth, moist mixture. Set aside.

Prepare the cabbage leaves for stuffing: Lay the leaves flat on a cutting board, smoothing the edges with your fingers. Set aside 3 large cabbage leaves and reserve for later use. With a small sharp knife, slice each remaining large leaf in half lengthwise and then again widthwise to create 4 equal segments. Shave off any thick stems going through the leaves. For medium-size leaves, you can just cut them in half; smaller leaves can be left whole.

Now, lay 6 to 8 leaves on the cutting board, shiny leaf side down and vein side up. Scoop 1/2 to 1 teaspoon (depending on the size of the leaf) of the filling, and spread the mixture out in an even line just above the bottom edge of the leaf. Begin to tightly roll the leaf over once to completely enclose the mixture, and then bring the sides in while tucking under and continuing to tightly roll the leaf to the end. Place the rolled leaf into the palm of your hand and gently squeeze out as much excess water as possible. Set aside and continue to roll the remaining leaves, making sure not to understuff or overstuff.

Place the 3 reserved whole leaves on the bottom of a large pot so that the entire surface is covered. Place the reserved cabbage heart into the center of the pot and begin to layer the stuffed leaves around it, starting at the bottom of the pot and interchanging vertical and horizontal rows. You should have 3 rows. Pack the leaves closely together and add a few whole garlic cloves with each complete row.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the ingredients for the cabbage cooking liquid by whisking together the lemon juice, tomato paste, pomegranate molasses, and salt with 6 cups of cold water.

Take a large dinner plate that will fit inside the pot, and place it, bottom side up, tightly covering the leaves. Then, pour the cooking liquid over the top of the plate until it reaches just slightly above the plate’s rim. Gently press down on the bottom of the plate as you pour the cooking liquid so that the plate does not float up to the surface of the pot.

Cover the pot with a lid and place on the stovetop over medium-high heat. Bring to a rolling boil, then immediately reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 to 35 minutes, or until all of the cooking liquid has been absorbed. After 30 minutes, taste a stuffed leaf. The meat and rice should be cooked through and the leaves should remain intact. If the rice is still firm, add some hot water to the pot over the plate and simmer, covered, for several minutes more until the rice is cooked through.

Once the filling is cooked, turn the heat off, remove the lid and the plate, and allow the leaves to settle in the pot for a few minutes before transferring to a large serving platter and serving.

Serve hot or warm with the fresh sliced tomatoes, mint sprigs, and khebez arabi (Lebanese pocket bread).

Recipe copyright 2017 by Julie Ann Sageer in “Julie Taboulie’s Lebanese Kitchen,” and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press/St. Martin’s Griffin. All rights reserved.