Foods wrapped and cooked in leaves appear in culinary cultures all over the world. In Mexico, tamales are wrapped and steamed in corn husks or banana leaves. In Thailand there is a dish known as aeb consisting of fish wrapped and cooked in banana leaf packets. Zongzi is a Mandarin Chinese dish made with sticky rice combined with pork and mushrooms and formed into little pyramids wrapped in bamboo leaves. In these dishes, the leaves serve as a protective cooking wrapper and are then discarded. The wrappers help to retain the juices and steam the contents, similar to the way the French use parchment en papillote or the Japanese use foil in hoil-yaki. The aromatic leaf wrappers also impart subtle flavors to the dish.
Many cultures also wrap foods in leaves intended to be eaten with the filling. The Greeks have dolmades, fermented grape leaves stuffed with an herb and rice mixture. The Vietnamese make a dish called Bo La Lot, seasoned ground beef wrapped in betel leaves. In Eastern Europe, you'll find Golabki and Sarmale, ground meat and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves.
Several years ago I attended Blackpot Camp in southwest Louisiana. Blackpot Camp is a three-day event held every October at a Cajun campground and dance hall in Eunice made famous by Anthony Bourdain in his travel show "No Reservations." Dedicated to the preservation of traditional Cajun culture, Blackpot Camp consists of music workshops, Cajun and Zydeco dance instruction, and Cajun cooking classes. Cajun cuisine is a style of cooking arising from the French-speaking Acadians who settled into southwest Louisiana after being forced out of Canada in 1755 by the British. Cajun cuisine incorporates West African, French and Spanish cooking techniques. It was there I met a Cajun cook named Bruneaux (pronounced Bruno) who taught me his version of Cajun stuffed cabbage rolls. It reminded me of jambalaya in a cabbage wrapper. Though Bruneaux prepared these in a cast-iron Dutch oven over an open fire, I've adapted his recipe for a home kitchen.
Cajun Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
These can be made ahead, refrigerated or frozen, then reheated.
1 large head of cabbage (about 3 lbs.)
2 T olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1½ cups celery, chopped
1 medium bell pepper, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 lb. Andouille or Italian sausage, casings removed
1 ½ T. fresh rosemary, chopped
2 t. Kosher salt
½ t. freshly ground pepper
2 cups slightly undercooked long-grain rice
1 T paprika
½ t cayenne
For the sauce:
2 8 oz. cans Rotel tomatoes
2 cups of the reserved cabbage cooking liquid
2 dashes of Worchestershire Sauce
Bring a large kettle of salted water to a boil.
Carefully cut out the center core from the cabbage with a paring knife.
Carefully lower the head of cabbage, core side down, into the boiling water. Cover and cook about 3 minutes, or until outer leaves are bright green and pliable. Remove the cabbage from the kettle but keep the water boiling. Place the cabbage on a baking sheet to catch the water that will drain. Carefully remove the individual leaves. Pat dry, set aside, and save any imperfect leaves. As you approach the center, the inner leaves will be undercooked. Return the head of cabbage to the pot of boiling water to soften the remaining leaves. Remove from the pot, but reserve the cooking liquid.
Cut a bit of the heavy rib or vein at the base of each leaf to make it easier to roll.
For the filling:
Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat and add the onions, celery and diced bell pepper and sauté until the onion is translucent. Then add the garlic and continue to cook for a few minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic.
Add the sausage, break up with a spoon, and brown until no pink remains. Add the rosemary, salt and pepper. Stir to combine. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Mix the cooked rice, paprika and cayenne into the sausage and vegetable mixture.
Prepare the sauce:
Combine the Rotel tomatoes with 2 cups of the reserved cabbage cooking liquid and a couple of dashes of Worchestershire sauce.
Lay the cabbage leaves, rib side down, on a flat work surface. Spoon about cup of filling into the center of each leaf. Fold the top of the cabbage leaf over and begin to roll downwards to form a cylinder. About halfway down, fold the sides inward and continue to roll.
Line the bottom of a roasting pan or casserole dish with a single layer of the reserved, imperfect cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls in the roasting pan, seam-side down.
Pour the tomato sauce over the cabbage rolls. Add more cabbage cooking liquid as needed to cover the sides of the cabbage rolls.
Cover the pan with foil and bake at 350 degrees F for about 1 hour.
This recipe can be modified for use as an appetizer by using smaller leaves and less of the filling.
Bertha Bus is spending the summer parked behind Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor while Peter works on the farm tending the vegetable crops.