Saturday, December 3, 2011

Roll With It: Stuffed Cabbage with Chicken

In Arabic, this is also known as Malfoof Mahshi.  I prefer this dish prepared with the Arabian flavors of my husband's homeland as opposed to the Eastern European version with tomato sauce and flavored with ginger that I grew up eating (no offense, Mommy.  Yes, I still call my mother, Mommy)

Until we moved to my husband's hometown I had always made my stuffed cabbage with chopped (not ground) beef.  But, when we moved here I discovered my mother in law making her very delicious stuffed cabbage with chicken.  It's not traditional but, due to the extraordinarily high price of red meat here, its become common.  I actually enjoy it quite a bit like this and have begun making it with chicken myself.

Its preferable to use a looser leafed cabbage for this recipe, but if all you can find is a regular salad cabbage, that's fine too.   For my family, with 7 people eating, I use 3 or 4 cabbages.  I think a family of four would probably use 1 or 2, depending on what you will serve with it.

What You'll Need:
1 cabbage
1 cup of rice, uncooked
2 chicken breast halves or 2 chicken thighs
powdered chicken stock (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil
Baharat Makhloot
a lemon (or lemon juice)
garlic, 3 whole cloves or three teaspoons minced
1 tomato

What You Do:
First your going to soak your rice for the stuffing.  Add a good four finger pinch of salt to the rice and pour boiling water over it to cover.  If you see the water being absorbed, add more boiling water so that the rice is always covered.  Let is stand until the water has cooled, then drain.

While the rice is soaking, you will soften the cabbage leaves so that you can roll them.  The traditional way is to cut out the core as much as you can, then plunge the cabbage head into a pot of boiling water.  As the cabbage softens, the leaves become pliable and easy to remove.  That is the way I did it for nearly 10 years... until I discovered that you could do it just as well in the microwave with no appreciable difference.  I cut out the core the same as with the boiling water method and microwaved the cabbage for 10 minutes, flipping it at the halfway point.  As with boiling the cabbage, you will need to repeat this finding that after the outer leaves come off, the inner leaves are still stiff.  You do not want the leaves too limp, just pliable.

After removing the leaves you are going to shave off the center rib using a sharp kitchen knife.  Don't throw them!  You can use these to line your pan and/or fill in the gaps.

To prepare the stuffing (hashwi) you will add a teaspoon of baharat, about 1/4 tsp of pepper, a tablespoon of powdered stock if using, and the 1/2 cup of olive oil.  For a long time I was too conservative with the salt; now I am far more generous.  Please, do not be afraid to taste your stuffing.  The rice should have softened enough that one or two grains can be eaten and this will give you an idea as to how much adjustment your rice and spice need.  When you taste for salt and spicing, you want it to be very richly flavored as the broth will dilute the flavors of the stuffing. Bone your chicken thighs, reserving the bones, and chop them coarsely.    Add the meat to the rice and mix it all with your hands.

Oil the bottom of your pan and cover it with the chicken bones, tomato slices, cabbage ribs, and broken cabbage leaves.  This doesn't need to be a thick layer, just enough so that the rolls will not stick to the bottom of the pan.

Take a cabbage leaf.  Start with the medium size ones until you get the hang of it.  Place it shaved side down with the part that was attached facing you.  Place about a tablespoon of stuffing in a horizontal line across the bottom of the leaf.  Turn in up the bottom, turn in the sides, then roll up.  Continue, fitting them snugly into the bottom of your pot in one layer.  Sprinkle this layer with a generous four finger pinch of salt (substitute some chicken broth powder for the salt if you want a richer flavor), garlic, and a sprinkle of lemon juice.  Repest with another layer, continuing until you have used all of the leaves.  If you have extra gaps on the top layer, fill them with some of the reserved ribs.

Some recipes suggest weighting the rolls with a plate to ensure they don't unroll.  I used a plate for a good number of years in fear of all my hard work coming undone.  Then, my stuffed cabbage on the stove and ready to simmer, I broke the one plate that fit in my pot.   I tried every plate in my kitchen, none fit well, and I finally resorted to cooking the rolls without a plate.  It made no difference and I didn't have to wash an extra plate.  Turns out, my mother in law never uses one either.  If you feel more comfortable, my all means stick a plate on top, but please don't feel like its really necessary if they are snugly fitted.  If you do want to use a plate, stick in on the top before you add your water.

Slowly pour water (or stock, if desired) down the side of the pot, aiming for a hole in between your rolls if possible.  Add just enough water to cover the rolls.  I find its better to be conservative with the water.  You can always add more and too much will dilute the flavor and make for watery rolls.  Cook over medium heat until the water boils then cover and reduce the heat to low.  You can check the flavor of the broth before covering.  If it needs more salt, this is the easiest time to add it as it will dissolve in the water covering the rolls. These will need to simmer for about an hour and a half.  If it starts to look (or smell) like the water has all been absorbed you can add more boiling water.  I usually have water heated in my tea kettle for this reason.   After an hour and a half, you can taste a roll to check if they are done.