For many of us in the Coal Region, halupki — cabbage rolls — are at the top of our comfort food list. They evoke fond memories of family dinners and holiday celebrations; our grandmother or “the church ladies” in the kitchen, boiling cabbage, stuffing and rolling the leaves — electric roasters or baking pans filled to almost over-flowing with deliciousness. In my neck of the woods, you’d be hard-pressed to find a block party or church festival where these are not on the menu among the offerings at food stands.
What you call cabbage rolls is dependent on where “you’re from”; halupki, golumpki, gwumpki, or golabki, holubtsi, sarma, balandeliai (Lithuanian for “little doves”), or any spelling of the aforementioned — just to name a few.
My “home town” area of the Anthracite Region of Northeast Pennsylvania — Schuylkill County — usually identifies them as halupki, sometimes golumpki. The bituminous region (Southwestern Pennsylvania), where I find myself now, refers to them as “pigs in a blanket” which, I confess, confused the heck out of me when I first moved to Johnstown.
To me, “pigs in a blanket” always meant some sort of hot dog/sausage rolled in a pastry.dough then baked. Imagine my surprise when the person in front of me in line at a local ethnic food fest ordered a “pig in a blanket” then turned toward me holding a luscious-looking halupki on a plate!
Although I try to embrace the local moniker for foods wherever I am, I just cannot call cabbage rolls anything other than “halupki“; it’s true that you can take the girl out of Schuylkill County, but you cannot take Schuylkill County out of the girl…
Cabbage rolls are known in some areas as “blind pigeons”, that name likely originated from an 18th century French dish in which pigeon was wrapped in cabbage leaves. Polish and French aristocracy traveled back and forth and in Poland, the dish became known as “golubtsy”; “little pigeons”.
Variety is the spice of life
Seems every cook’s recipe is a little different than every other — and I mean every cook’s!
Cabbage rolls in general are subject to great debate with every cook weighing in and convinced theirs are “the best”; ask 100 cooks for their recipe and you will get 100 different versions. Although they vary slightly with the cook and region, the concept is the same; boil a whole cabbage head, pull off the leaves as they loosen, stuff the leaves with a filling, layer them into a vessel, pour a broth or sauce over top, cover and cook.
Hotly contested among cooks are several factors: should you use cooked rice or un-cooked in the filling mixture? What ratio/types of meat? Should the rolls be cooked in a tomato-based sauce or a meat broth? Even rolling techniques are a matter of personal preference! And, of course, what they are called is even debatable — which we already covered.
My version of halupki has been in my repertoire for decades and was born from a combination of recipes from two cooks who showed me how to make them.
I took my favorite traits from each, combined them, and my Coalcracker Kitchen halupki recipe was born. It became a family favorite that I stuck with throughout the years.
My tweaks and tips
I use a meat mixture that is equal amounts ground pork and 80/20 ground beef, un-cooked rice, and tomato soup sweetened with a little brown sugar as the sauce to cook my halupki in because I like its flavor and seasonings. I also caramelize the diced onion for the stuffing; I like the added flavor and touch of sweetness it provides, but you can simply grate the onion if you prefer.
I always trim off the thick vein of the blanched cabbage leaf to make rolling easier; you can trim the vein flat with a sharp knife, or if the leaf is large enough, cut it off/out completely.
If rolled properly, there should be no need to use toothpicks to hold the rolls together; something your diners will thank you for. There are several ways to roll the halupki, the video below shows the method I use. Some people roll the halupki like an eggroll.
The cabbage challenge
Cooking the cabbage for the individual leaves is, honestly, many cook’s least favorite part but it’s not rocket science, it just takes some patience and planning.
Find a pot large enough to fit the whole cabbage inside.
- Step #1: Fill a stockpot about half way with water, salt it lightly, and bring to a boil. Also bring to a boil an extra kettle of water to add to the pot if needed.
- Core the cabbage using a short, sharp knife. Make sure the core is completely removed.
- Submerge the whole cabbage, cored end up, in the pot of boiling water. Use the extra boiling water to cover the entire head if necessary, pouring directly into the cored out end.
- As the cabbage leaves soften, you can gently work each individual leaf away from the head with a pair of tongs. Allow the leaves to remain in the water until they get a waxy look to them and are flexible, but don’t get then get mushy.
- Take each out of the water, place on a baking tray, and let set until they are cool enough to handle. Keep working the leaves away until they get too small to make a cabbage roll with (less than the palm of your hand), any that are too small to cover the palm of your hand. Remove the cabbage center left over from the boiling water, set aside to cool.
- Use any torn or less than desirable leaves for lining the cooking pan to help prevent scorching. The left-over center can be chopped and layered in, too.
Halupki (Cabbage Rolls)Course: RecipesCuisine: astern uropean, Coal egionDifficulty: Intermediate
Meat and rice filling encased in cabbage leaves then cooked in sauce until tender.
1 whole green cabbage, about 3 1/2 to 4 pounds
Boiling salted water
1 medium onion, very finely diced
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground beef, 80/20
1 1/2 cups un-cooked rice
1 (6 ounce) can of tomato sauce, divided
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 whole egg
2 (10 ounce) cans condensed tomato soup
3 cups water
2 Tablespoons brown sugar, firmly packed
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
The remaining 2 ounces of tomato sauce leftover from making the filling
- Additions for cooking
1 pound sauerkraut
OPTIONAL: 4 strips good smoked bacon, un-cooked
- Saute the onion in a small amount of butter in a fry pan until soft and golden; set aside to cook.
- Meanwhile, bring pot of salted water to boil in a pot large enough to have water completely cover the cabbage. Core the head of cabbage. Place entire head into the pot of boiling water core side up. Keep water boiling. As the cabbage leaves loosen, pull them using tongs from the water and place them on a baking sheet or rimmed pan to cool Continue and repeat until you have most of the leaves removed or they become too small to use. Take the remaining cabbage center from the water and reserve. Set aside less desirable outer cabbage leaves for use lining the cooking pot. Allow all to cool enough to safely handle.
- Trim the thick vein of each leaf down or cut it out completely and discard.
- Drain 1 pound of sauerkraut; set aside.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the meat, onion, rice, egg, garlic powder, 1/2 cup (4 ounces) of tomato sauce, salt, and pepper. Mix well by hand.
- In another bowl, mix the condensed tomato soup, water, brown sugar, the remaining tomato sauce you did not use in the meat filling mixture (2 ounces), and black pepper together thoroughly; set aside.
- Take a cabbage leaf, turning it so the leaf cups “upward” and place a heaping tablespoon or two of meat mixture on the end of the leaf closest to you. Start to roll the meat in the cabbage leaf, then tuck one side of the leaf in toward the center and finish rolling, Using your finger on the opposite of the fold-over where the loose cabbage is sticking out, tuck the edges into the filling. This makes a tight “package”. Place the roll seam side down on a baking tray; repeat until either the cabbage leaves or the meat mixture is used up.
- In a large Dutch oven, place some of the less desirable cabbage leaves you reserved in a layer on the bottom. If you do not have extra leaves, chop up the remaining interior of the cabbage you pulled from the water as the leaves got too small to be usable. This layer helps protect the halupki from scorching while cooking.
- Add a single layer of the cabbage rolls to the pot, keeping the seam side down. You will likely be able to judge how many layers you will have by the number of cabbage rolls on the tray and how many fit in the first layer. Each layer of rolls gets some sauce and a layer of sauerkraut on top of it, so split up your sauce and kraut accordingly. Finish your top layer with some sauce, sauerkraut and, if desired, the four strips of un-cooked bacon across the top.
- Cover the Dutch oven and bring it to boil on the stove top. You might need to place a heat-proof plate on top of the rolls to keep them submerged in the sauce. Reduce the heat and gently simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until the cabbage is tender. ALTERNATELY, bake, covered, in a 350F degree oven for about 2 hours or until the cabbage is tender OR in a slow-cooker on LO for 5 to 6 hours or until the cabbage is tender. Cook time depends on the size of the rolls and the cabbage used.