One of the most popular Ukrainian home-style recipes is also one of the most loved. I’m talking about holubtsi, a simple cabbage roll loved by Ukrainians and foreigners alike. Now, while many countries have their version of a cabbage roll, this recipe comes directly from my mother-in-law (in fact she was the one making it when she came to visit me and my wife in Lviv)!
While this recipe has quite a few steps, and is definitely a labor of love, don’t let that put you off. In fact, many people find making holubtsi meditative, similar to homemade pasta or spending hours making Asian style dumplings. Speaking of dumplings, if you are more of a dough aficionado then I highly suggest trying varenyky, the Ukrainian stuffed dumplings to die for.
There are so many amazing Ukrainian recipes, but holubtsi is one of my favorites. It is but a simple stuffed cabbage leaf – but it always tastes better made at home than in a restaurant. This dish is often served at holidays, or when visiting babusya’s house since you are clearly too thin and ‘have you been eating enough?’
Where Do Cabbage Rolls Come From?
Well, this question is nearly impossible to answer. Unlike other world-renowned, country specific dishes like Ukrainian Borshch, Vietnamese Banh Mi, or Japanese Sushi, many countries have cabbage rolls. From Scandinavia all the way to China, you can find variations of this dish.
I will say that holubtsi (also called gołąbki in Polish and holishkes by the Jewish diaspora) are the most well known versions in America due to the large Polish and Ukrainian immigration in the early 20th century.
How To Make Holubtsi, The Famous Ukrainian Cabbage Roll
The first step in making holubtsi is actually my least favorite. I know, you might think stuffing and rolling the cabbage would be the worst part. In fact, once I get past the first step the rest is quite fun! So, step one when making holubtsi at home is coring and boiling the cabbage.
Use a paring knife to cut out the core of the cabbage in a cone shape and then place the entire head into a pot of gently simmering water. Put the lid on the pot and let boil for about 30 minutes, or until the leaves are soft and pliable.
While the cabbage is boiling you can get to work on the filling. This step allows for customization, as everyone’s holubtsi recipe can vary depending on region, or even city. For example in Crimea where my in-laws are from it is popular to use ground mutton as the meat. Where I live in Lviv you’ll most often see pork, unless you are at a Jewish restaurant in which case you’ll often get ground chicken. Whatever you decide to fill your cabbage rolls with, there are a few other things you’ll need.
Holubtsi Filling – What Goes Into Tasty Stuffed Cabbage
Almost every holubtsi recipe, no matter how personalized, have a few things in common. Mainly there is a grain, a protein, and a vegetable. Sounds simple enough right? Once you get the hang of it you can play around and substitute things for other things. For example, this recipe uses rice which is commonly used in Western Ukraine; but in the center it is popular to use buckwheat and in Crimea bulgur is often seen. In the Carpathians they’ll use corn grits which are also used in the famous banush.
To make this recipe’s filling mix simply microplane or very finely grate a carrot until you have about 5 tablespoons worth. For the rest of the carrot use a regular grater and set the grated carrot aside (this will be used for the sauce). Then grind a yellow onion and mix the onion with the carrot and two tablespoons of tomato paste in a bowl. Set a pan with a bit of oil and lightly fry the vegetable mix until they sweat, about 3-4 minutes. Place the cooked mix into a bowl with a cup of par-cooked rice (boil one cup of rice for about 6 minutes), and half a kg of raw ground pork. Sprinkle in a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of freshly cracked black pepper then mash everything together with your hands.
Stuffing Cabbage Rolls At Home
By now your cabbage should be fully softened and the leaves should easily peel apart. Divide each leaf into three segments (larger leaves can be divided into four pieces). DO NOT use the entire leaf for a holubtsi. This is considered a faux pas and often a sign of laziness. The final holubtsi will be massive and improperly cooked.
Take a piece of cabbage and add about a tablespoon of filling mix right in the middle. This part can take some getting used to, but with how much you are making I am sure by the end you’ll be a master.
Simple roll the holubtsi as if you were making a very, very small burrito. In fact, if you are good at making burritos then the folding method for this is exactly the same, just on a much smaller scale.
To prepare the pot for cooking holubtsi, you should lay down a leaf or two of cabbage. This will prevent the holubtsi from sticking to the pot. Also drop in a few bay leaves. Then simply lay down your holubtsi.
When you fill up the pot make sure you have enough carrot left over to cover the last layer of cabbage rolls. You can also add some more bay leaves. Next whisk around 3-4 tbsp of tomato paste with water and pour it over the holubtsi in the pot. Pour over more water until the holubtsi are *just* covered. If the cabbage rolls are packed tightly you wont actually need that much liquid.
Cover the pot with a lid and place on low heat for one hour. The simple tomato sauce will infuse flavor into the cabbage leaves while the heat cooks the holubtsi filling. To serve just open up the pot and gently remove the cabbage rolls to a serving plate.
How To Serve Ukrainian Cabbage Rolls
Cabbage rolls are considered an everyday food so there really isn’t a traditional, or hard and fast rule one must follow when serving them. One of the most common things served with holubtsi is smetana, or an extra fat style sour cream. You can also sprinkle over some chopped green onion, dill, or chives if you like! If you are looking for a general Ukrainian side dish then dill potatoes are always a hit.
Holubtsi – Ukrainian Cabbage Rolls
- 1 Large Pot
- 1 Cabbage European cabbage, avoid Napa or other Asian cabbage varieties
- 500 grams Minced Pork can also use beef, chicken, or mutton
- 1 large Carrot Microplane about 5 tbsp worth of carrot, then regularly grate the rest
- 1 cup Rice
- 1 large Yellow Onion grated
- 4 tbsp Tomato Paste
- 1 tsp Salt
- 1/2 tsp Black Pepper freshly cracked
- 5-6 Bay Leaves
- Oil as needed
- Water as needed
- To start, par boil your rice for 6 minutes, then strain into a large bowl and set aside.
- Use a paring knife to core the cabbage, then place the entire head in a large pot filled with water. Simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the leaves are soft and pliable.
- Place some oil on a pan and lightly fry your microplaned carrot and grated onion. You only want to fry for a few minutes, until the carrot has softened slightly.
- In the bowl with rice add the cooked carrot and onion along with all the raw ground meat and salt and pepper. Mix everything together with your hands until you have a someone homogenous mixture.
- Remove the cabbage from the water and peel off the leaves. Drain the water and place a few of the oddly shaped or ripped leaves on the bottom of the pot. Divide the rest of the leaves into 3 or 4 strips (depending on the size of the leaves).
- Places about a tablespoon of filling in a strip of cabbage and then roll it closed as if you were making a very tiny burrito.
- Lay the cabbage rolls in a single layer in the pot, then spread over a bit of grated carrot and a bay leaf or two. Roll more holubtsi and repeat the stacking until you get to the top. Make sure you have enough carrot left to cover the last layer (if you need to grate more carrot you absolutely can).
- Mix the tomato paste with a cup of water and pour it over the holubtsi in the pot. Add more water just until it reaches the top layer, then cover with the lid.
- Place the pot on the stove on a low heat and let simmer for about one hour. To serve gently remove the holubtsi and plate with some sour cream and chopped dill or green onion.