Finnish Cabbage Rolls (Kaalikääryleet)

Cabbage rolls are one of those foods that exist in one version or another all over the planet, but my favorite is still the Finnish type. Here's the recipe.

Warning

This is not fast food. It takes at least 4 hours to prepare and cook the rolls, you have to stick around nearby to keep an eye on them, and the whole process is sufficiently involved that you'll probably screw up the first time. However, you can make a big batch at once (this recipe serves 4 to 6) and the taste and texture actually improve if reheated.

Ingredients: Rolls

Ingredients: Filling 1: Pearl barley is hulled barley grain with most of the bran scrubbed off; it looks and acts similar to uncooked rice.

Instructions

  1. Cook rice or barley in broth.
  2. Boil cabbage head in lightly salted water until leaves become translucent, about 10 minutes.
  3. Carefully peel off about 15 of the large outer leaves, one at a time, by cutting the thick leaf stem.
    Tip: The inner leaves cook more slowly, you may find it useful to remove only a few leaves at a time and let the rest cook while preparing rolls.
  4. Shave off the protruding thick stem on the "outer" side of each leaf; this makes wrapping much easier.
  5. Prepare filling by mixing about 1.5 cups of the cooked barley/rice with the raw meat/mushrooms, cream, marjoram, salt and pepper.
    Anecdote: Finns refer to the mushroom version as Russian cabbage rolls. Figure out the hidden political statement for extra credit.
  6. Chop up unused inner cabbage leaves and add about 1 cup to the filling.
  7. To make each roll, place about 2 tbsp of filling near the stem end, fold end on top, wrap the sides and roll.
  8. Place rolls in shallow greased pan, seam side down. Repeat until pan is full.
    Tip: Was there leftover filling? Make little hamburger patties and fry 'em up!
  9. Preheat over to 350 deg F (175 deg C).
  10. Sprinkle rolls with salt and pour a thin lattice of molasses on top. Dot rolls with tiny lumps of butter. Pour the water into the bottom of the pan.
  11. Bake 1.5 to 2 hours. Spoon some pan juice atop the rolls every now and then; add more water or molasses if they dry up too much.
    Tip: The molasses are supposed to soak into the cabbage and turn the top of each roll a nice glistening dark brown. Do not confuse this with the cabbage drying out and burning.
  12. Turn off oven and let them sit there and soak up the pan juices for an hour or two.
Serving suggestions

Serve as a main course, with boiled potatoes and lingonberry/cranberry preserves to provide a tart contrast. Sauces are not necessary, but if you insist -- or the rolls dried up too much -- a mild cream-based sauce (possibly using any leftover pan juices) is OK. Do not even think about a tomato sauce, the rolls are too sweet and spicy, and using a newfangled hothouse vegetable like tomatoes in traditional Finnish cuisine will put you in a state of sin anyway. (This is also why you should use barley instead of rice.)

Freeze any leftovers and reheat when you feel like it. A single small, juicy roll is also quite usable as an appetizer.

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