Roll out the special characters for another great Polish dish: gołąbki. You will hear it as go-LAHB-kee, but in Polish, that unusual (for us) “l” makes the word sound like ga-WOMP-kee.
While the literal translation means “little doves,” these are stuffed cabbage rolls (the size of little doves, but likely better tasting!). As I wrote in a previous article about Czech kolache, in Texas, a nontraditional sausage-filled “kolache” is what many Americans could call a “pig in a blanket.” In northern Wisconsin, a pig in a blanket is one of these cabbage rolls. If I asked my Slovak grandmother, she’d tell me they are halupki. Hey, to each their own! (I may take to calling these Polish enchiladas.)
Making gołąbki requires a bit of work and time, so families often make them around the holidays or for special gatherings. But most Polish restaurants here in the United States or typical cafeterias in Poland will have them on the menu. This is hearty food, and I tend to get a hankering for it in the colder months. My grandparents used to make them, and I learned from my mother.
The Polish-style cabbage roll calls for softened cabbage leaves wrapped around a grain and meat filling, simmered for hours in a tomato-based sauce. Our family prefers sauerkraut to the tomato.
Tomatoes are New World food, so while cabbage rolls may date farther back, the recipes we see today are no older than the arrival and dispersion of those foods through workaday populations of Europe. Recipes can vary, and I include notes for some variations in this one.
My family never used rice, but preferred barley, which has a firmer bite to it. We used ground beef only, as the pork tended to be too greasy, we thought. But the “real way,” according to my mother, is half beef, half pork.
I’m including a tomato sauce for cooking the rolls, but my family always used sauerkraut instead, and that was typically homemade from Grandma. I like Frank’s brand in a glass jar myself. You can swap out the tomato sauce for 1 pound drained sauerkraut, or even combine the two, if you prefer.
Nowadays, Mom is cooking for just herself and my father, and forgoes the extra work with a shortcut version: “We [call] it ‘cheaters’ because we’re cheating.” Rather than cooking the rolls for 3 to 4 hours, she arrives at all the flavor of golabki without all the work and time.
Makes 16 to 18 golabki
- 1 to 2 heads green cabbage (16 to 18 leaves, plus 2 to 3 cups roughly chopped cabbage)
For the Filling
- 2/3 cup uncooked barley (or white rice)
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 1/2 pound ground beef, or 1 pound ground beef plus
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika (optional)
For the Tomato Sauce
- 2 16-ounce cans crushed or diced tomatoes (or whole and crushed yourself)
- 2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce
- 2 bay leaves
Pre-cook the barley or rice and let cool. If making the tomato-based sauce, mix the undrained tomatoes, tomato sauce, and bay leaves in a large pot. Simmer, covered, while you prepare the rest of the dish.
Remove the largest leaves from a head of cabbage, one for each roll—16 to 18 depending on leaf size and how you distribute the filling. If the larger outside leaves have a thick vein, trim that down with a paring knife—but don’t cut all the way through! Place the leaves in boiling water until they are pliable enough to fold without cracking. Remove and let cool before handling.
Sauté the diced onions in butter until very lightly browned. Mix the raw ground meat, cooked grains, sautéed onion, beaten egg, and any additional seasonings together.
Spoon about 1/2 cup filling into the lower half of each cabbage leaf. In a method a bit similar to making spring rolls or burritos: Roll it up and away from you just a half turn, then fold the two sides into the center, then roll forward until the leaf is wrapped completely around the filling. Set the finished roll down on top of the seam to hold it in place. Repeat with the remaining leaves and filling.
Lightly grease a Dutch oven or large kettle and put down a layer of chopped cabbage, along with enough water to just cover the bottom of the pot. (Mom uses a layer of sauerkraut instead of the chopped cabbage and water.) Layer in the rolls.
Remove the bay leaves from the tomato sauce, then pour the sauce (and/or the remaining sauerkraut) over the rolls and cover. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to a very low simmer for about 3 hours.
Serve with mashed potatoes, rye bread, or even beets. (That’s a no for me, but trying to be respectful of alternative tastes!) Cabbage rolls freeze well in a good airtight container.
Note: A nice alternative to the stovetop method is to put everything in a slow cooker and let it sit on low for 3 hours. One can also bake this, covered, at 350 degrees F for 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes.
It almost seems insulting after that long, traditional process, but we are cheating, after all. Pan-fry 1 pound of ground sirloin with a bit of diced onion, then add half a head of roughly chopped cabbage and a jar of sauerkraut. Simmer it all together for half an hour. Salt and pepper to taste.