In medieval Hungary, meat with a side of sauerkraut was a national dish. During the Ottoman occupation, the Turkish practice of stuffing meat into vegetable leaves was adopted, and hence the cabbage rolls appeared. A bed of sauerkraut and a generous dollop of sour cream topping set apart the local version from the regional varieties. Töltött káposzta is a treasured winter staple and an obligatory course at Hungarian wedding receptions. Word to the wise: it tastes even better the next day (and the day after that).
Yield: 6 servings; Total time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
For the stuffed cabbages
8-10 sour cabbage leaves, rinsed (you can also use fresh). Cut out thick vein at the stem end
500 grams (1 ¼ pounds) pork shoulder, finely ground
100 grams (¼ pound) smoked pork belly or fatback, cut into small cubes, about 1 cm (½ inch) long. Remove skin.
150 grams (¾ cup) long-grain rice
1 onion, minced and sauteed
2 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed to a paste
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons Hungarian sweet paprika
2 pinches freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon ground caraway seeds
For the sauerkraut base & to finish
1 kilo (2 pounds) sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
200 grams (½ pound) smoked pork butt, sliced into 1 ½ cm (½ inch) cubes
200 grams (½ pound) smoked paprika sausage, sliced into rings
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon Hungarian sweet paprika
2 pinches freshly ground pepper
¾ cup sour cream
Step 1: Rinse the rice in cold running water then drain well. Add rice to a small pot and cover with 1 cup of cold salted water. With the lid on, bring water to a boil, then turn heat to very low and continue cooking for 12 minutes. Then turn off heat, remove lid, and let rice cool for 15 minutes. Rice grains should absorb all liquid and remain a bit firm, not fully cooked through.
Step 2: Add the bits of pork belly or fatback into a large pan and render the fat on medium heat until meat turns golden-brown and crispy, about 8-10 minutes. After a few minutes, add minced onion and sauté over medium-high until golden, about 6-8 minutes. Remove from heat and add the mixture (including the rendered fat) into a mixing bowl. Combine with cooked rice, ground pork, eggs, mashed garlic, salt, freshly ground pepper, paprika, and ground caraway seeds. Using wet hands, mix thoroughly so that ingredients disperse evenly.
Step 3: Fill the cabbage leaves. Place a rinsed cabbage leaf on a work surface, cut off its thick vein at the stem end, and fill its center with about two heaping tablespoons of the meat mixture. Then fold the cabbage leaf around the filling from each side, forming 7-8 cm (3-inch) long logs. Don’t overstuff as filling will expand slightly during cooking. Repeat for all cabbage leaves. Place them seam-side down and put aside. Shred any leftover cabbage heads, and form meatballs from leftover meat mixture.
Step 4: Using ¾ of the sauerkraut, layer them into a large pot, add bay leaves, pepper, paprika, ¾ of sausage rings and ¾ of smoked pork butt and mix together. Then place stuffed cabbages (and meatballs, if any) into the pot, seam side down, and finally cover with the remaining sauerkrauts, sausages, and pork butt chunks. Add enough warm water to almost cover, about 4 cups, and cook at a bare simmer for 2 hours. Sauerkraut should be tender
Step 5: Serve the stuffed cabbages in shallow bowls. Add a layer of juicy sauerkraut, then one or two stuffed cabbages, and top with sour cream. Serve a few slices of crusty bread on the side.
Words of advice
There are endless stuffed cabbage variations but here’s a couple of general things to keep in mind. (i) The smoked meats and the sauerkraut are both already salty, so be judicious with salting. (ii) Before you begin, taste the sauerkraut and rinse in a couple of changes of cold water if too sour. (iii) Any kind of smoked meat works with the sauerkraut and you can of course go without it.
I created these recipes with the help of nearly a dozen historical Hungarian cookbooks, adjusting ingredients, cooking times, and methods to reflect my own preferences and tastes of the current day.