Boxing Day Recipe: Lamb Stuffed Cabbage Rolls In Tomato Sauce

[This entry is cross posted at]

Why can’t I simultaneously heat the interior of my car and defrost the windshield? Why is this an either-or proposition? Yes, I can get heat through the floor vents while defrosting but the steering wheel is freezing and leeching whatever warmth was left in my numb fingers so immediacy is required up top instead of down below and no promises of eventual relief from rising heat will mollify my mystification at the inertness of the wide open and ready dash vents. I drive a Hyundai. It’s not the most luxurious vehicle ever devised but if there’s one thing they nailed, I mean engineered beyond my dreams and avarice, it’s the power of the heater. I can go from teeth-clattering misery as I get in the driver’s seat to wishing I had taken off my jacket or sweater in a matter of minute, from sitting in an icy pond to standing under a launching space shuttle. It’s a quick quickener.

The Koreans outfitted my car with four fan speeds. That tells me that there’s a little wiggle room. I could set the heat at fan speed two or three to warm me and my fellow travelers and there should theoretically still be enough juice in the motor to push warmed air through the vents at the base of the windshield where carpool number cards live. Naturally, I’d prefer to have both the defrost and heater roaring at speed four, but I would settle for as low as two if that’s what it takes to see both in action simultaneously. Not speed one though. I’m not a pushover.

Reddit tells me there’s a baffle in the blower/diverter that allows air to flow one way or another but not both. The floor is on a different duct so it’s out of this conversation. Don’t bother asking why the other exhausts can’t be on their own duct because such curiosity is not appreciated on the thread I found. For whatever reason all non-floor vents are on the same duct and there’s no getting around that. Fine. Why does it have to be a one-or-the-other baffle? Why not always have the dashboard flow open and have a sliding door that opens or closes access to the defrost vent independent of any other pathway? I’m faced with an unnecessary choice between warmth and visibility. It’s mechanical Manicheanism.

That’s my big reason for not liking winter and it’s frustrating, but there’s good in the season too if you are willing to look for it. First off, there’s Christmas. You don’t have to be religious to enjoy Christmastime but it’s the religion that’s at the heart of the day. I think the religious get a bad rap for participating in all the secular fun. There’s a lot of looking down noses and commenting on commercialization as if we can’t have discrete thoughts about things. It’s a celebration, and being happy about the arrival of a savior doesn’t mean you can’t look forward to a new bike under the tree. Personally, I think the secular enjoyment comes in full force on Boxing Day. All the efforts to make others happy find their conclusion on Christmas Day and that can make celebrations stop and start on schedule. It gets hectic. Mass at eight, presents at home, lunch at grandma’s at one, riding lessons for the newly minted bike owner, electronics hook ups, phone calls, zooms, dinner guests arrive at five. It’s a blast, but it can be non-stop. Boxing Day is all stop.

Second, winter commends itself to slow-cooked hearty meals that spend hours on the stovetop, filling your home with spiced and herbaceous aromas that won’t fade for days. The following recipe for lamb stuffed cabbage rolls in tomato sauce is one of those. Take thirty or so minutes out of your non pressed Boxing Day to get it started and then relax with a book someone gave you or binge on a show, getting up every so often to go outside for a second so you can clear your nose and smell the sauce freshly when you come back in.

This makes for a great family meal and looks impressive on the table, but it’s Boxing Day. If you don’t want structure, just leave a few bowls and silverware out on the counter for people to serve themselves as they want, when they want.

Lamb Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

For the Rolls:

– 1 lb. ground lamb
– ½ yellow onion, diced
– 4 cloves garlic, minced
– 1 head of green cabbage
– 1 tsp. dried oregano
– 1 tsp. ground cumin
– ½ tsp. ground cayenne pepper
– ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
– salt to taste

For the Sauce:

– 2 28 oz. cans whole plum tomatoes with their juices, torn by hand
– 1 tbsp. oregano
– 4-5 cloves garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
– 1 cup dry white wine (don’t use something you wouldn’t want to drink)
– red pepper flakes to taste
– olive oil
– salt to taste

A quick note: I typically cook without measuring herbs and spices. When I’m making something I intend to write about keep track of what I use and write it down as I go, rounding to the nearest familiar unit. The amounts above are tested and will make you happy but if you want more cayenne or aren’t comfortable with my profligate garlic use do what makes you happy. You won’t break it. As always, taste and correct.

Start with the sauce. Pour the canned tomatoes in a bowl, juice and all, and tear them apart with your hands until you have a rough, chunky liquid. An apron is recommended. You could start with pureed or diced tomatoes but whole plums usually have more flavor, I prefer the texture I get by tearing them, and the tendrils from the torn flesh wrap around meats and pasta but again, do what makes you happy. Add a few glugs of olive oil to a saucepan, toss in the garlic and put over medium high heat. Heat the garlic until it’s aromatic. Don’t let it go so long that it starts to brown or your sauce will have an acrid backbone – about 1 minute. Next, pour in the bowl of ripped up tomatoes, wine, oregano, and red pepper flakes along with a small pinch of salt. If you’re like me and prefer more than just a dash of salt hold back on adding more until just before you’re ready to serve. Once you have a boil reduce to the lowest heat and let simmer for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the sauce is simmering bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Pulling leaves off of a head of cabbage can be annoying. Start by removing and discarding the dirty outer layer. Carefully peel off each successive layer until the folds of the cabbage make this nearly impossible and you are left with a little green vegetable brain. Ideally, you’ll end up with around ten intact leaves about the size of a little league catcher’s mitt. What’s actually going to happen is that a few pieces are going to tear as you work them off the head and that’s fine. Some of your rolls are going to be piecemeal. Boil the leaves in batches, maybe three at a time, for 3-4 minutes or until they are pliable. Remove with tongs and lay flat on a cutting board or other clean surface. Repeat until all are done.

Cut out any still tough parts of the central ribs and set aside.

In a mixing bowl thoroughly combine the meat, onion, garlic, oregano, cumin, cayenne, cinnamon, and salt. If your ground lamb is particularly lean and you feel like it’s too dry add some olive oil. I’ve never had that problem, but olive oil should fix things if things need fixing.

I ended up with nine usable leaves so I added an eyeballed 1/9th of the spiced lamb mix to a leaf and rolled once, tucked the sides in, and completed the roll. If you have ten leaves use 1/10th of the mix, eleven use 1/11th, etc. Not all the leaves will be perfect or intact so some will take creative tucking and combining of pieces. They’ll look fine in the end.

Cover the bottom of a Dutch oven or similar pan (crockpots are great for this) with a thin layer of sauce and then add the cabbage rolls in a single layer.

Add the rest of sauce and bring to a boil, reduce to the lowest simmer, and let cook uncovered for 45 minutes. If the sauce doesn’t cover the rolls you’ll need to turn them over at the midway point but otherwise go off and ignore it for a while. After 45 minutes pull the fattest roll out of the pan and cut it in half to be sure it’s cooked all the way through. If not, give it 10 more minutes and check again until you’re satisfied. Taste and correct for salt if needed. You can leave it simmering for another hour or so for the grazers to pick at as they please.

We served ours with some gnocchi browned in butter, but pasta makes a great accompaniment. It’s fine by itself too. Be sure to ladle a good bit of sauce on top and have some Parmigiana Reggiano or Romano on hand.

Have a great carefree day, but don’t get too comfortable. There’s only three hundred and sixty-four shopping days left until Christmas. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have Boxing Day plans to not attend to.

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