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Töltött Káposzta (Stuffed Cabbage)

Ivonne from Cream Puffs in Venice and Orchidea from Viaggi & Sapori are hosting a one-time event called Dishes of Comfort. They ask us to write about something we consider comfort food, one of the special dishes that meant a lot to us when we were young.

My grandmother has a fairly limited culinary repertoire. She makes a set of Hungarian dishes, and little else. But what she does, she does well, and this is the food I grew up on. Ima (we call our grandmother by the Hebrew word for mother) lives less than a mile away from the house where I grew up, and she was our default babysitter when my brothers and I were kids. Her food is comfort food for me, and stuffed cabbage is what she has made the most of over the years.

When I spent a summer in Israel during high school, I got to visit a set of our cousins that I had never met before. When I arrived, it turned out that Ima had called up her cousin Hugocs, who lives in Netanya, Israel, to tell her to make stuffed cabbage for me because she knows how much I like it. The stuffed cabbage Hugocs made for me in Netanya tasted just like the stuffed cabbage Ima has always made for me in Brooklyn, and eating it was like coming home.

As my father pointed out, they probably learned how to make stuffed cabbage at the knee of the same old woman back in the old country. They grew up together in the same little village (Tarpa) in Hungary, after all.

When I went to Hungary last August, I found that the food more and more closely resembled my grandmother’s cooking as I traveled north to Tarpa. Down in Pécs and Szeged, I found no stuffed cabbage at all. In Debrecen, the stuffed cabbage was mysteriously lacking in tomato paste, but was otherwise very similar. Finally, when we got to Tarpa, Ima’s friend Szaz Anna made us stuffed cabbage that was very delicious and very similar to Ima’s, except that she used lecso instead of tomato paste, and it was a bit spicier than Ima’s version. Anna gave me her recipe, but I prefer Ima’s stuffed cabbage, and it is my take on Ima’s recipe that I am sharing with you here.

To this day, when I call my grandmother to see how she’s doing, she usually tells me, “I made some stuffed cabbage if you want to come pick it up. It is too much for me to eat, you have to come take it. I made it for you.”

I called her before I started to steam the cabbage myself, even though I wrote down her recipe a while back. I think she enjoyed the call, though, and the reminder that there are still things she does far better than I. I couldn’t possibly rely on just my notes when trying to make stuffed cabbage on my own for the very first time, after all.

Well, in the great tradition of my maternal ancestors, I have made far too much stuffed cabbage. It is here if you want to come pick it up.

Töltött Káposzta (Stuffed Cabbage)
1 cabbage
For the filling
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. rice, rinsed
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp édes paprika
A little olive oil, just to help bind it together
Salt and black pepper to taste
For the sauce
1 15 oz. jar sauerkraut
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp édes paprika
1 tbsp granulated sugar
Salt to taste
2 6 oz. cans tomato paste

Take off the most wretched outer leaves of the cabbage, and rinse the whole thing off. Steam the cabbage for 5-10 minutes, or until the leaves are pliable enough to bend easily. I find that after removing all the pliable leaves I can, I end up having to re-steam the still hard inner leaves. If I steam it so long that even they are pliable from the start, the outer leaves are easier to accidentally rip.

Peel off the leaves. Hold each leaf rib-side up, and pare the thick rib down to get rid of that tough vein and make it about as flat as the rest of the leaf.

Prepare the filling by mixing all the filling ingredients together by hand. The rice:meat ratio varies, though I have suggested using a 1:2 ratio here. Ima initially told me to use 1 part rice to 1 1/2 parts meat by weight, but when I tried it that way, there was way more rice than I’m used to when she cooks it. It may be that the type of rice used affects this – I don’t know what sort of rice Ima uses (Uncle Ben’s would be my guess), but I use basmati. Szaz Anna also uses 1 part rice to 1 1/2 parts meat by weight.

When I called Ima to ask her to clear this up for me, she explained that it is really based on what you can afford – if you can afford more meat, use less rice. If you want to stretch the meat further, use more rice. The rice also serves the purpose of keeping the meat from binding into nothing more than a tough patty; like the bread in meatballs, the rice here keeps the meat tender and good.

To fill each cabbage leaf, set the leaf on the table rib-side down, so that it naturally curves into a sort of cup waiting to be filled. Roll small handfulls of meat into oblong patties that fit the size of the leaves, and place the filling on the cabbage leaf, near the bottom of the leaf. Fold the sides of the leaf over the filling, and roll the cabbage around the meat, being sure to tuck the bottom end of the rib around the filling to keep it all snugly wrapped.

Cut the center out of the cabbage that remains, and discard. Chop up the rest of the cabbage into small pieces.

To fill the pot, start with a layer of that chopped up cabbage mixed with sauerkraut. Then place the stuffed cabbage in a flat layer on top of that, starting by lining them up around the circumference of pot and then filling in the middle. Add another layer of chopped cabbage and sauerkraut on top of that, then another layer of stuffed cabbage. Keep going like this until you run out of stuffed cabbage, and add a final layer of chopped cabbage and sauerkraut on top. Add water to just cover the contents of the pot.

Bring it to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes.

A few minutes before your kitchen timer goes off, make a roux by browning the flour in a bit of oil in a separate pan. Stir in the paprika, then remove from heat. Add the sugar, salt, and tomato paste, and mix well. Ladle some of the water out of the cooking cabbage pot and mix in with the paste, just to thin it out. Add the thinned paste back into the pot with the cabbage, and carefully stir it in to dissolve it in the water. My grandmother instructed me to the shake the pot to get the paste mixed in, but my pot was too full for me to risk that.

Simmer for another 10-20 minutes, or until done.

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35 Responses to “Töltött Káposzta (Stuffed Cabbage)”

  1. Tanna says:

    Oh, fabulous!!! I’m on my way (at least virtually).
    Terrific photo and absolutely beautiful story!
    So terrific that you can call and talk for this cooking!

  2. K@w. says:

    You shouldn’t make offers like that to people who know where you live *weg*

  3. Danielle says:

    Tanna – Thank you! And hey, you’re welcome here any time. Yeah, it’s wonderful to have my grandmother as a resource like that. She gets all excited discussing recipes with me, so it’s a fun way for us to bond.

    K – If you want to drop by and grab some, they’re yours.

  4. Gretchen says:

    I love every thing about this entry, and cannot wait to try the recipe.

  5. Yvo says:

    *runs to yearbook* Just kidding. Haha.

    Okay, but I’m stupid, is the rice and the ground beef to be cooked first? I’d guess no because you’d probably have said so in the ingredients, but I just want to make sure. :) Thanks!

    PS The beginning part, before the jump/show more link, made me tear up.

  6. Alanna says:

    I love these posts of yours. My grandmother made these too, and I’ve been thinking of rustling up the recipe from someone, she called them halopshees, that’s phonetic, I have no idea how it might really have been spelled.

  7. Oh, how I miss my dad’s stuffed cabbage!

    That’s one of the Jewish (well, Eastern European) dishes I think of the least, but it’s a real comfort food. I might have to try making it some time soon.

  8. novalis says:

    K@W – too late, I just ate the last one.

  9. Ivonne says:

    What a beautiful story, Danielle! I too love stuffed cabbage and will have to try this recipe very soon. It’s amazing how these simple dishes can mean so much.

    Thanks so much for taking part!

  10. Danielle says:

    Gretchen – Thanks! If you do try it, let me know how it goes.

    Yvo – Hey, you’re welcome to come over for stuffed cabbage any time. ^^ No, the rice and beef are not cooked first. They cook in the cabbage and sauce. It all works out, really.

    Alanna – Halopshees? Interesting. Where is your grandmother from?

    Gluten-Free – What was your dad’s version like?

    Ivonne – My pleasure! Thank you for setting the challenge and thus motivating me to finally make this on my own. If you try this recipe, please do let me know how it goes.

  11. it’s alwyas such a wonderful feeling for me to read about Hungarian food on your blog, Danielle! I love stuffed cabbage, although I make it really only about once a year. There are a few different ways to prepare it, with ot without the tomatoes, all versions so delicious. Well, the only problem is, you really always make way too much. the good thing is it becomes better and better every time you reheat it. Thanks for posting this! Zsofi

  12. Ange says:

    Delicious – my gran (Polish) used to make a varitaion of these too

  13. Sarah says:

    Beautiful! I too have fond memories of stuffed cabbage, but of course my mom’s weren’t “authentic” in the sense yours are. (I recall cans of Campbell’s tomato soup . . . )Thank you for sharing this wonderful heirloom recipe.


  14. Orchidea says:

    Very nice recipe… thanks for participating.

  15. Brilynn says:

    My cousin’s, boyfriend’s mother makes the best stuffed cabbage ever! I think it’s the fact that it’s made by a Grandma that makes it so special.

  16. Sally says:

    What a wonderful story and a great recipe! They sound delicious.

  17. Gae says:

    I made this amazing dish on the weekend (I used pork mince instead tho) and it got rave reviews from all the family- truly authentic Very reviving for those with colds! One cabbage made enough easily for 8 people so we are looking forward to having it reheated again tonight. Thank you for sharing it and urge others to make it as well.

  18. [...] These are my favorite all-purpose braising vessels. I have made bone-suckingly unctuous Chinese spare ribs in mine, and a Greek lamb stew. I will probably use one to make my grandmother’s Hungarian stuffed cabbage next time, too. Not to mention many soups. [...]

  19. [...] Main Courses: Meat Crypto-Jewish Brazilian Yellow Stew Finnish Meatballs with Squid Ink Pasta Hortobágyi Palacsintak (Pancakes Stuffed with Meat Stew) Kabocha Beef Tagine with Chickpeas and Preserved Lemon Lamb Tagine with Apricots, Dates, and Yams Lamb Tagine with Pearl Onions, Dates, and Sugar Snap Peas Malaysian Beef Curry with Thick Onion Sauce (Daging Nasi Kandar) Sour Cherry Barbecue Sauce and Baby Back Ribs Spicy Beef Slices with Tangerine Peel Stewed Garlicky Black Bean Spare Ribs Stir-Fried String Beans with Pork and Pork Töltött Káposzta (Stuffed Cabbage) [...]

  20. Guac says:

    I just found you because i was searching for this recipe, and you almost made me cry. My grandmother was hungarian, she died a couple of years ago, but she sounds just like yours. I grew up on this food, and she was always making WAY too much and asking us to eat more.
    I miss her a lot!

  21. Danielle says:

    Zsofi – It sure does. It’s really my favorite sort of leftovers. Though I miss living with my brothers; with them around, it never lasted too long.

    Ange – I’d love to hear how the Polish version differed from mine.

    Sarah – If they made you happy, and your mom made them, it’s all good. ^^

    Orchidea – Thank you.

    Brilynn – That makes all the difference!

    Sally – Thank you.

    Gae – I’m thrilled to hear you tried it and liked it!

    Guac – I showed your comment to my mother, who almost got a little tearful herself reading it. Hungarian grandmothers are really special. You’ll probably appreciate this, then – when I showed this post and the photo to my grandmother, she scolded me for making the cabbage too big and not tucking it in well enough on the left side. Absolute perfectionist, she is, and convinced that she knows best and I will never be able to live up to her standards of stuffed cabbage. ::laughter:: The worst part is, she’s probably right. If you’re ever in NYC and want a home-cooked Hungarian meal, you let me know and I’ll call her up, okay?

  22. debra bfodie says:

    this is a great recipe, but i’ve learned from my mother in law who is from wales, who got her recipe from her, it’s just a little different. We use tomato soup on top of our cabbage rolls and then whe top then with bacon. THAT makes everything taste awesome. My mother in law doesn’t eat the bacon, she just uses it for the taste, but my husband and I eat it.. Try it sometime

  23. Lore says:

    In Romania “sarmale” (or “stuffed cabbage” as you call it) it’s a national dish. That is why I’m pretty amazed I found this in the Hungarian Recipes category.

  24. christian says:

    Wow your recipe is similar to my hungarian grandmothers recipe also!! I seen other recipes on the web with bacon and pork and i was confused. This is the way I know it! Good job!!

  25. Susan says:

    After a very long day of baking I just sat down at my computer and for some crazy reason I decided to look up stuffed cabbage recipes…specifically Hungarian ones. Thank you so much for bringing back some wonderful fond memories I have of my Hungarian Mother in law’s recipe, which is very much like yours. The part about the chopped up left over pieces of cabbage especially hits home as Lil ( my MIL) used to do the same thing! She had a name for it which we always called” uproar”! because that’s what the word sounded like. She used Sacramento tomato juice but when I make it I ( having an Italian Mom) use Italian plum tomatoes. I just liked the sauce a little bit thicker.But I will definitely try yours. Again, thanks for the memories…Sure miss her.

  26. Sharon says:

    Enjoyed reading the recipe and comments. My grandma was from Hungary. I cant wait to try this stuffed cabbage!

  27. Cynthia says:

    Both my parents were Hungarian and I didn’t know there was any other kind of food until I went to 1st grade. My dad worked shift work in a steel mill, but the weeks he was home, we always ate together and he always put on a suit and tie for the evening meal. I just made Töltött Káposzta for 150 people for a local convention. The only difference between this recipe and the one passed down to me from my mom and grandmas is the use of tomato juice for the cooking sauce. Great photo…that’s exactly how they look. BTW…I core the cabbages before putting them in boiling water and take the leaves off one at a time, draining them in a collander before de-veining them. I can steam them just long enough to soften them without the leaves getting mushy, and it is easier to roll them tightly so they don’t come apart while cooking.

  28. Lisa Isbell says:

    My grandmothers, both of them Hungarian, handed down a cabbage roll recipe. It is very similar to the one you have here except we make stuffing of 1 lb of ground beef, 1 tube of hot ground sausage and cooked rice. We make the rolls as you described, with the cabbage wrapping the stuffing. Place them in a deep pot or slow cooker then pour in a large can of tomato sauce and a jar of sauerkraut and let it simmer (about an hour or so on the stove top or for several hours on the high setting in the slow cooker). The hot sausage seems to eliminate the need for additional seasonings.

  29. Dennis Szalay says:

    Hi I’m born in Australia to Hungarian parents and at 45yrs old find myself caring for my 79yr old Dad. He pretty much ONLY eats hungarian food.As he’s hands are’nt much good anymore….it’s prompted me to expand my range of hungarian recipes. Guess whats next on the menu? Yep Toltott Kaposzta.Thanks for the tips on prep nad execution. I’m SO looking forward to dinner tomorrow night.
    Thanks from down under, Dennis

  30. Dennis Szalay says:

    PS Well it’s tomorrow night now and that was an absolute success……now thats what I call home cooked heaven….THANKS again for the help.

  31. Danielle says:

    Susan – Thank you for the story. I’m so glad this brings the memories back! I certainly think of my grandmother whenever I make it.

    Cynthia – Awesome! Thanks for the tip on steaming the cabbage, I’ll try that.

    Lisa – That reminds me of the friend I met in Hungary, who sometimes added a jar of storebought lecso.

    Dennis – Thanks for telling me how it turned out! I’m really thrilled to hear you liked it.

  32. Donald says:

    Nice recipe. Very close to the one my aunt Julia made and she is from Debrecen. (Tiny town north of there)
    Trying to find relatives from that area. Original name wa Stensko.
    Anyone know this name ?

  33. [...] and if that made you hungry, here’s my approximation of my Hungarian grandmother’s recipe for stuffed cabbage. This was written by Danielle. Posted on Friday, April 6, 2012, at 8:54 am. Filed under Other [...]

  34. Kaposztasteszta says:

    I also love this dish, though I make a vegan version of it. One word of advice for people travelling to Hungary: a lot of the tastiest food you will eat will not be in restaurants, but at home. Hungarians are not big on eating out the way people are in more western countries. Restaurants are expensive and not as delicious as your mother’s cooking, so why bother unless you have to or its a special occasion? (seems to be the general consensus). And when Hungarians eat out, they tend to have very distinctive ideas about what they should be eating. For instance, veggie dishes are more common to eat in the home because they are cheap to make and lots of excellent produce grown in Hungary. The healthiest dishes like this are considered “farmer food” and not the kind of thing you’d order out, which always disappointed me. Thankfully, Budapest has a few vegan restaurants which are the exceptions to the rule. This cabbage dish is also known by another name (I can’t remember now) and originally from Transylvania, which would make it a very southern dish. I had this for the first time at a home in Kiskunhalas, near Szeged.

  35. Aviva says:

    Can I pick some up… You have no idea how much I am craving this today ;~},

    Thanks so much.. for this amazing blog…

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