Kohlrouladen - German Cabbage Rolls

There is a German restaurant in Chicago that makes fabulous cabbage rolls; perfectly seasoned meat, a hint of rice, tender chew, and an absolutely delicious white gravy over everything, including the ideally matched fried potatoes. At least that was my experience the first visit. Subsequent trips there did not end with the same delectable goodness; perhaps I got the end of the night's preparations, but the cabbage was slimy and the meat was overcooked and nearly burnt on the bottom; such a disappointment.

I was beginning to think that my delight in the German cabbage roll was more a side effect from the giant mug of beer and the oompah band accompaniment than a realistic culinary experience. It has taken a lot of experimentation to rework this simple peasant food into the dish I had locked in my memory.

I know I branch from tradition a bit, but I don't sacrifice overall 'German' flavor and the substitutions lighten the rolls a bit to mimic that 'all day simmer' that I suspect the restaurant is using to achieve the tender bite to their rolls. Almost all my attempts have resulted in a meat stuffing that baked into a solid mass, much like a sausage wrapped in cabbage leaves. Many of the pictures online accompanying recipes look to have the same problem. Not at all what I was after.

Then I had a breakthrough with mushrooms. I have been adding them to nearly everything lately; not because I particularly like mushrooms (honestly, I've never been much of a fan) but because they seem to enhance almost any dish. My most recent success was in adding them to the stuffing for my chicken ballotine to lighten the density of the meat; exactly what these cabbage rolls needed.

Note that in both recipes the mushrooms are pulsed fine in the food processor so that very little evidence remained (hide them from children detection) but even small they are sponges of flavor, absorbing all the simmering juices in the pan as they cook and in the end, little to no 'mushroom' comes through, just an additional depth of flavor. Cooking part of the meat with the mushrooms is no accident. This too lightens the stuffing but has the added benefit of providing a taste testing for seasoning before being wrapped in cabbage.

This recipe serves at least 9 with extra-large appetites, or as many as 15 'normal' hungry eaters when served with potatoes. I assemble the rolls the day ahead and bake them the next day, almost always for a group. Let cold rolls to come up to room temperature before cooking and/or allow for increased bake time.

Raw pulsed mushrooms, meat, onion, bacon grease./Cooked with parsley and bread crumbs
German Cabbage Rolls

1 Tablespoon bacon grease
8 oz white mushrooms, minced fine
1 medium onion, minced
1 lb ground pork
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1 teaspoon marjoram
1/2 teaspoon ground mustard

salt and black pepper to taste
1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 cup bread crumbs
1/3 cup rice (optional)
1/2 bunch parsley, chopped (approx. 1 cup)
2 lbs lean ground beef
2 eggs

2-3 cups chicken broth

In a large skillet, melt the bacon grease. Add mushrooms, onion, and ground pork. Cook, breaking pork into small bits and add tomato paste, paprika, marjoram, and the ground mustard. Cook until the pork has lost any hint of pink, stirring to infuse the spices and allowing any residual moisture from the mushrooms to cook off and the meat mixture to thicken. Taste to season the meat, remembering that another 2 pounds of raw hamburger are added to the stuffing, so the mixture should be salty to compensate. Allow the mixture to cool a bit and then add the vinegar, bread crumbs, rice, parsley, beef and two eggs. If preparing ahead without the intention of cooking immediately, allow the pork mixture to cool completely before adding the uncooked meat. 

To stuff/roll the cabbage leaves: 

1 head cabbage, tough outer leaves removed, thick stem removed

In a large pot of simmering salted water, submerge the cabbage completely. Allow the head to simmer a few minutes and when the outer leaves appear slightly translucent and wilted, remove with kitchen tongs. Continue to remove leaves until the leaves are too small to roll. Allow each layer to cook a few minutes if they do not easily come loose with the tongs. Let the leaves to drain of any water and come back to room temperature so they are easier to handle.

Large leaves can be cut in half and rolled with the thick middle spine either removed completely or cut thin. Smaller leaves should have the middle vein trimmed to match the thickness of the rest of the leaves so rolling is easier and they evenly cook.
Depending upon the size of the cabbage, there will be a varying number of leaves to stuff. The cabbage used in this recipe had approximately 40 leaves worthy of stuffing. Weighing the meat mixture revealed it to be 4 lbs. Dividing 4 lbs by 40 resulted in just under 2 ounces per roll, or about 1/4 cup. Based on these measurements, you should be able to make a reasonable estimate on how much each of your stuff-able leaves should have for filling.
Lay the meat mixture in the middle of the leaves. Fold the sides over the ends and roll to make a secure bundle. Lay the rolls seam side down in the pan. They can be stacked in two layers. Pour the chicken broth over the rolls and up to the edge of the pan. They can be refrigerated at this point or baked in a 350-degree oven (covered) for 1 1/2 hours or until they are bubbly and cooked through. They can also cook at 325-degrees for as long as 2 hours, depending upon the timing needed, cabbage rolls are forgiving.

I prefer to serve German cabbage rolls with fried potatoes, but they would be equally good with boiled or mashed. Fried potatoes are best made from baked russet potatoes. Allow them to cool and then slice. Fry in bacon grease. Salt and pepper to taste. I fry mine in batches and then move to the oven to keep warm (while the cabbage rolls are cooking.) The pan can then be used for making the gravy.

Fried potatoes can also be made the day ahead and reheated in the oven uncovered for approximately 30 minutes at the end of the cabbage roll baking time, stir as they reheat to encourage an even browning.
2 1/2 Tablespoons milk
2 1/2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 Tablespoon cooking Sherry (or 1-2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar)
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix the milk and cornstarch in a small bowl. Remove the cabbage rolls and place on a high-sided serving platter, covered with foil to keep warm. Strain the cabbage roll cooking juice into a large fry pan and bring up to a simmer. Add the milk and cornstarch mixture, stirring until the gravy has thickened. Remove from heat and add the sherry/vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. 

Pour over the cabbage rolls in the platter and serve immediately with potatoes and a nice German beer.

Recipe makes 12-15 servings.