Region: Arab Levant
Difficulty: Labor Intensive
Arab cooks are the masters of the stuffed vegetable, the repertoire of a competent cook seemingly endless. Cabbage was part of the Arab culinary repertoire since medieval times. These labor-intensive preparations are some of the most rewarding and, if you sit around rolling or stuffing with someone else, really quite joyous to make. Of course, it is traditionally women's work, but this is communal labor where patience and good spirit is rewarded with happy eaters and a contented cook. When I asked my former mother-in-law, Leila al-Qattan, what fifteen recipes must be included in any cookbook on Arab cuisine, she included this stuffed cabbage recipe. Cabbage has been part of the Arab culinary lexicon since medieval times.
[photos: Clifford A. Wright]
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 5 hours in all
1. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and plunge the whole cabbage in until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside, and chop the central core. Lay the larger cabbage leaves in front of you and cut out the thick central stem ribs of the leaves with a paring knife, dividing each leaf in two. Leave the smallest leaves whole. Arrange the cabbage stem ribs and chopped core over the bottom of a round stove-top casserole or saucepan a little wider in diameter than a dinner plate.
2. In a medium-size mixing bowl, knead together the rice, lamb, onion, baharat, allspice, cinnamon, salt, and pepper until well blended.
3. Place about 1 tablespoon of the stuffing along the rib side of each leaf and roll up tightly without folding the sides over. The rice will not expand enough to damage the leaves. Once rolled, the cabbage leaves will look like thin cigars. Arrange the rolled cabbage leaves on top of the cabbage ribs in the casserole or saucepan seam side down. The rolled cabbages should be placed tightly next to each other. Once you've got a single layer, sprinkle with more salt and pepper, 3/ 4 teaspoon mint, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, half the garlic, and half the lemon juice.
4. Continue stuffing and rolling the leaves and place a layer upon the first layer, making each row and each layer compact and neat. Sprinkle with more salt and pepper, the remaining 3/ 4 teaspoon mint, the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, the remaining garlic, and the remaining lemon juice.
5. Pour in enough of the water to barely cover the cabbage rolls. Put an inverted heavy dinner plate over the cabbage to hold them down. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, about 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to very low, using a heat diffuser if necessary, cover, and simmer until tender, about 3 to 3 1/ 2 hours. Remove a roll-up to test for doneness. Serve or continue cooking until done.