Monday, January 21, 2013

Cabbage rolls aren't just Hungarian, you know

Recipes like this show how good food ideas spread across the world. Cabbage rolls are so popular in Hungary, for example, that they probably should have postage stamps or perhaps even a statue or two in their honor. In fact, just about every food culture has its own riff on cabbage rolls, so it is hard to say where this idea actually started. Maybe Genghis Khan’s hordes brought this particular version back from one of their forays into Eastern Europe, or maybe it made its way up a trade route in one or another direction… who knows.

China too has a long history of wrapping things in cabbage leaves before stewing or braising them in a savory sauce. That, along with Central Asia’s interpretation of this dish as dolmasi, has pretty much guaranteed that cabbage rolls would become a part of Northwest cuisines.

Cabbage rolls with the braised lamb
Much like those dolmasi, the main filling here is rice. But there the relationship pretty much ends, because – Chinese being Chinese above all else – they know how to turn plain old white rice into the stuff of dreams. 

Here, the filling is a savory lamb fried rice that is, truth be told, pretty darned stellar all by itself. Wrapping it in blanched cabbage leaves like little birthday presents adds a nice layer of moistness to each bite, and these are then complemented by rich morsels of lamb as interpreted in the traditional red-cooked braise popular throughout North China.

I have fussed around with the original recipe a bit, adding more flavor to the rice, spicing both it and the lamb with some chilies, and then frying each cabbage roll so that it stayed put on that short distance between the serving dish and a waiting mouth.

Red-cooked lamb with cabbage rice rolls 
Càibāo yánggāoròu 菜包羊羔肉 
Serves 4 as a main dish, 8 as part of a larger meal

Onions & lamb
14 ounces good quality lamb, with or without bone (see Tips)
1 tablespoon oil
4 slices fresh ginger
3 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
3 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine or filtered water
4 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon rock or white sugar
2 star anise
½ stick cinnamon
Boiling filtered water as needed

2 ounces good quality lamb, boneless
2 tablespoons oil
½ medium onion, trimmed and peeled
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground chilies
½ teaspoon sea salt
Lamb fried rice
2 tablespoons oil
2 cups cold cooked rice (see Tips)
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

8 large napa cabbage leaves
Boiling water
Frying oil

1. For the red-cooked lamb, rinse the lamb under cool tap water, pat dry, and cut into 1-inch cubes. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat and add both the ginger and the green onions; stir-fry these for a minute to release their fragrance, scoot the aromatics up the side of the wok, turn the heat up to high, and then add the lamb. Sear the lamb on all sides until it is browned and then toss in the ginger and green onions with the lamb. Use the rice wine or 3 tablespoons water to deglaze the bottom of the wok, and then add the soy sauce, sugar, spices, and enough boiling water to cover the lamb. Bring the liquid to a boil and then lower it to a rapid simmer. Cook the lamb for about half an hour, or until the liquid has reduced to a thick syrup. Scoop the lamb and the sauce into a bowl.

Gorgeous blanched leaves
2. While the lamb is cooking, prepare the rice: rinse the 2 ounces of lamb under cool tap water, pat dry, and cut into small (1/4-inch) pieces. Clean out the wok and heat 2 tablespoons of oil over high heat, add the lamb, and fry it until it starts to brown; scoot the lamb up the side of the wok and add the onions. Stir-fry the onions with the cumin, chilies, and salt until the onions are also brown, and scoot them up the side to join the lamb. Add the rest of the oil to the wok, heat it over high, and add the rice, gently breaking up the clumps as you stir-fry it. When the rice is also browned, mix in the lamb and onions, adjust the seasoning (but don’t make it too salty), and remove the rice to a bowl. When it has cooled down a bit, add the cilantro.

3. Rinse the cabbage leaves, cut off any imperfections, and place them in a wide pan. Cover them with boiling water, bring the water to a boil again, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the leaves until the ribs (white sections) are soft enough to bend easily, but avoid overcooking them. As soon as they are done, empty the boiling water into the sink and then rinse the cabbage leaves with cool running water until they are no longer warm. Drain them in a colander and pat each leaf dry with a paper towel.

4. Divide the filling into 8 piles and then proceed to stuff one leaf at a time: place a mound of the fried rice about a third of the way up from the base of the leaf. Roll the base of the leaf up and over the filling, by which time you should be in the frilly green area. Fold the edges of the green leaves over the two outer edges of the filling and then continue to roll the filling up in the leaf. It should look like a fat spring roll when you are done. Repeat with the rest of the leaves and filling until you have 8 stuffed cabbage rolls.

5. Clean out the wok and heat a couple of tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Dust each cabbage roll with some cornstarch, especially where the top part of leaf folds against the cabbage roll, as well as on the opposite side of the roll. Fry two rolls at a time, adding more oil as necessary. When the rolls are lightly browned, remove them to a large, heatproof bowl and arrange them like spokes around the rim. Scrape the red-cooked lamb and all its sauce into the center of the bowl. (This dish can be made ahead of time up to this point, covered, and refrigerated for a couple of days.)

6. About 20 minutes before serving, steam the bowl over high heat until the cabbage rolls are completely heated through. Serve hot.


Roll up rice in a leaf
You can use any cut of lamb you like here: leg, shoulder, loin, ribs, even the neck… anything will taste good. I have called for a total of 1 pound of meat, but use more if you have lots of bones in the lamb. Cut off a cup or so of boneless meat for the rice and use the rest for the red-cooked lamb.

Any kind of cooked rice is fine here: brown, white, long grain, short grain… this obviously is a very homestyle way of cooking that has been spruced up with the fancy cabbage rolls.

The original recipe does not call for spices in either the lamb or the rice, but I like the extra oomph they provide. I also have given the rice more flavor by browning both the lamb and the onions, as well as by crisping up the rice. 

I sneakily added rice wine to the red-cooked lamb, muy verboten in most Muslim countries, but hey, I'm in California. Use water if you must and follow the lead of your personal god. Mine just happens to be Dionysus. 

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