The Dish: Stuffed Collards

Collard Greens
Collard Greens

My first experience with stuffed cabbage of any kind was the Polish variety a friend introduced me to in Chicago, seven years ago. Fresh off a Thanksgiving holiday and loaded down with leftovers from her Polish-born mother back in Flint, Michigan, she showed up at the office with plastic containers full of neat little pink rolls.

I’d never been a fan of cabbage, but these rolls were soft, succulent, and just a little sweet, stuffed with a simple mix of ground beef, sauteed onion, and white rice in a light tomato sauce. After much begging I finally got her mother’s recipe, with its secret ingredient – Campbell’s Tomato Soup.

I was a devotee of stuffed cabbage in all forms from that point on, from Turkish varieties with tomato and nuts to Hungarian paprika-spiced sausage rolls. Occasionally I have even changed up the original, handwritten recipe by substituting chicken stock for all of the soup, adding raisins and couscous, ground turkey, or vegetables. But the eureka moment didn’t occur until years later when I swapped flat-leaved collards for the cabbage, thus saving precious prep time and frustration (after all, collards and cabbage are both cultivars of the same species, Brassica oleracea). Yes, the Campbell’s soup remains. Bear with me on this.

Stuffed cabbage rolls are both cheap to make and satisfying to eat, which must be why they’re nearly ubiquitous across Europe and Asia. This spring I had a truly unique version, a Cretan delicacy called lahanodolmades, in which beef or lamb, onion, and rice are cooked with dried mint, wrapped in parboiled cabbage leaves, and then baked in an avgolemono (egg and lemon) sauce. The resulting rolls are dense, tart, and refreshingly minty. At the family dinner in an Athens neighborhood where I first had these, the table for eight loaded down with mezes of all shapes and kinds, this meat-stuffed cabbage shone through.

For everyday use, I stick to the Polish-American variety. Along with macaroni and cheese and spaghetti and meatballs, stuffed cabbage now completes my personal trinity of comfort foods. Use white cabbage if you want a slightly sweeter roll; use collards if you can’t be bothered to peel and prepare the finicky leaves. It’s nontraditional, to be sure, but the stuffed rolls still remind me of Thanksgiving in the Midwest. Turkey, pierogi, and cabbage rolls – the perfect cold-weather feast.

Stuffed Collards
Makes 18

• 1 lb ground beef• 2 small yellow onions, diced
• 2 cloves garlic
• 1 T tomato paste
• 1/2 cup long grain rice (uncooked)
• 1 (10 oz) can condensed tomato soup
• 1 1/4 cup (10 oz) chicken stock
• 2 T olive oil
• 8 large collard leaves (flat)
Salt & pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions andground beef on medium-high heat until beef is browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the uncooked rice and cook for one minute, then remove from the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Prepare an ice water bath in a large bowl. Lay the collards flat and slice each in half lengthwise, removing the toughinner stems and discarding them. When the salted water has come up to a boil, submerge the leaves in batches for 30 seconds at a time, removing them to the ice water bath.

Mix together the condensed tomato soup and one canful (1 1/4 cups) of chicken stock, whisking to combine. Pour about 1/2 cup into the bottom of a 9 x 13 baking dish, to cover. To form the rolls, fill each leaf (do not dry) with a heaping quarter cup of the meat filling, roll, and nestle seam-side down in rows in the pan. Repeat with the rest of the leaves to fill the pan.

Pour the remaining sauce over the rolls and cover the pan with foil. Bake the rolls for one hour, then remove the pan and let it cool for 15 minutes before serving.

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