Friday, October 11, 2013

Golabki (or Golumkies or Golumpkis—oh, heck: Polish Cabbage Rolls)

by Sheila Connolly

You might have an inkling that I am not Polish, nor have I any Polish blood upstream.  I have been to exactly one Polish restaurant that I can recall:  the late Warsawa on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, a long time ago (it was across the street from Chez Panisse, if that tells you anything).

Anyway, fast forward a decade or three.  When I was in Albany for the mystery conference Bouchercon, a group of us went to a restaurant there called the Albany Pump Station (the “pump” part refers to the water pumped from the Hudson River to a local reservoir in the 19th century, not to the excellent brewpub that now occupies the building).

On the eclectic menu, buried among the ribs, meatloaf, scallops, shrimp and so on was “golabki.” I am ever game to try new things, so I ordered it—and I liked it.

The Pump Station version, with pierogies

So of course I had to try to make it myself.  Hmm—no Polish cookbooks.  Let’s try the Internet.  Hmm again:  plenty of recipes, but no two alike (although more than one person claims that it was their grandmother’s favorite Sunday recipe).  But I don’t give up easily, so here is my Irish-American interpretation of this much-loved Polish dish.


This recipe should serve six, but you can easily double it.

The wrapping: 6 large whole cabbage leaves
If the leaves can be removed easily from your head of cabbage, peel off 6 (keep peeling until you get six that aren’t torn!) and blanch them briefly in boiling water to soften them.  Then set them aside while you make the filling.

The filling:

1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
½ lb ground beef
¼ cup pork sausage or ground pork
½ cup cooked rice
1 egg
1 Tblsp whole milk
Salt and pepper to taste

Note:  various recipes suggest adding other herbs or spices, such as a bit of cloves or basil.  Or celery or carrots or mushrooms or grated apples—you get the drift. Throw in whatever you've got that tastes good.

In a sauté pan, add a tablespoon of oil (not olive oil) and sauté the onion and garlic over medium heat for a few minutes, until soft.  Add the meats and cook until they are no longer pink (this does not have to be cooked through because the rolls will cook when they’re assembled).  Drain off any grease.

In a large bowl, combine the meat mixture, the egg, the milk and the spices and mix.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Spread out a cabbage leaf and place 1-4 Tblsp of filling in the middle (how much you use will depend on how large your cabbage leaves are). Tuck the edges under, then roll the roll to firm it up so it won’t fall apart as it cooks.

Place each roll, seam side down, in a greased baking dish.  Continue until you’ve used up your filling (you should have at least six).

The sauce:

Here’s where the widest variation among recipes occurs.  You can make your own favorite tomato sauce, or use a canned one.  You can use the liquid from baking and add some tomato paste. Most recipes agree in adding some brown sugar.

I’ve opted for a sort of hybrid:

¼ cup red wine
1 cup beef broth
3 Tblsp brown sugar
Salt if needed (depends on your beef broth)

Mix the liquids, stir in the sugar, salt if needed, and pour around the cabbage rolls (this will not submerge them).  Cover with foil and bake in the preheated over for 40 minutes.
Remove from the oven and remove the foil.  Pour your tomato sauce (or even chopped tomatoes) over the rolls and bake, uncovered, for another 20 minutes.  If you wish, you can either mix in or garnish with sour cream at the end.

The restaurant served them with pierogies (like ravioli stuffed with mashed potatoes); other people recommend serving the rolls with mashed potatoes on the side.  You can decide!

And if you happen to be Polish, you can tell me how far wrong I am. 

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  1. Your version sounds delicious. I made cabbage rolls pretty much the way my aunt-in-law made them the Austro-Hungarian-Slavic way. She called them Sarma. She and I cooked a huge pot of them at once. One thing you didn't mention that we did was to carefully slice the rib from the cabbage leaves before rolling. That makes it easier to form the rolls. Her sauce was made by cooking a pan gravy. She called it Ein Brent (I doubt if that is the correct spelling), but it was flour browned in butter then adding water. She also strewed sauerkraut over the layer or between layers if there were more layers. I loved this dish! Now I don't cook them anymore, but can enjoy them at the local diner once in while as they serve them on Tuesdays. The diner puts mashed potatoes and peas on the plate as well. If I get around to cooking them again I will try your method. The sauce I'm sure would be terrific.

    1. You're right, Nancy--I saw at least one recipe that called for removing the cabbage ribs, and in fact, I did, at least partway. Otherwise they'd never stay rolled, or you'd have to stick a toothpick in (always risky, in case you forget to remove it!).

  2. Another adventurous recipe, Sheila! I've always wondered how they're made - never occurred to me to try to duplicate them.

    A great job as usual. And congrats on the NYT list!

  3. In yiddish these are called Chalupshis. They are made on holidays.

  4. Nancy, my Serbian in-laws called them sarma, too! I think they soured the cabbage first...not sure. My Hungarian grandmother also made these. I imagine just about every country has its own version. My mother-in-law always brought these when they visited--even if they flew. She'd fill a tote bag full of the frozen sarma in plastic bags! Not sure you could get away with that today!

  5. Sheila, I'm thinking there might be some Polish blood in your veins after all. : ) I'm not Polish, but I am Ukrainian (never confuse the two, it's highly offensive!), and I grew up on cabbage rolls and pierogies. They were never served together, though. Pierogies were a main dish on meatless nights, usually stuffed with mashed potatoes and cheese, and on very, very rare occasions, stuffed with sour cherries. I think you did a splendid job with the cabbage rolls. I'm sure there's no one way of making them. I love that Peg's mother-in-law brought them on the plane! The last time I made them, I believe I used Penzey's bratwurst spice in them.


  6. The melting pot in Western PA (where I grew up) included many wonderful Polish and Ukrainian families whose ancestors originally moved to the area to work in the steel mills. Consequently, I grew up enjoying so many great foods at friends' houses: "stuffed cabbages" (what we called them), halusky, pierogi, and chrusciki were some of my favorites, which is why your post brings back some warm culinary memories. Thanks so much for sharing the recipe, Sheila, and I especially like your modern take on the sauce--adding wine is a fine idea. Have a wonderful weekend...

    ~ Cleo

  7. Oh my gosh, Sheila! You've made golabki!! I adore them, but have never tried making them myself. Busia (grandmother) made the best ones in the world, and I still miss her cooking. My family mostly enjoys Polish food (kielbasa and pierogi), but I'm the only one who loves golabki and kiszka (blood sausage). We're fortunate to have a Polish deli nearby so I can satisfy my cravings when I need to.

  8. OK Polish person speaking up-pierogies are not just raviolis stuffed with mashed potatoes. In fact, although you may have potatoes in them (and you usually put something in with the potatoes-cheese, for example), some just have cheese, or sauerkraut, you can also have them with fruit (prunes-I hear my great grandmother made them with fresh strawberries. The fruit ones would be considered a dessert-aside from the prunes-those could be a main dish). You can put all sorts of things in them-in fact, I recently had a Buffalo Chicken pierogie.

    Now to your golabaki-I read your recipe to my mom and she kept saying "no, no, no" lol. No garlic and just beef for the meat. As for the sauce-even I (who love wine) was taken aback by that addition. And I could hear my mom nearly having a coronary over the phone when I said brown sugar! NO BROWN SUGAR. She even said none of the ladies at OLC would even do that. (Just so you know-OLC stands for Our Lady of Czestochowa, a church that happens to have a pierogi ministry-hey, the knitters have their prayer shawl ministries-these ladies make and sell piergogi to help the church!) Apparently my great grandfather didn't like tomato sauce, but he liked tomato soup (go figure) so we make our sauce with tomato soup and water.

    If you don't have time to roll each cabbage individually, a friend of the family devised a shortcut. Layer the cabbage and meat and sauce like a lasagne!

    So that's what a Polish person from WNY has to say about it! But I'm glad you tried it and I'm sure your version is tasty.

    1. Thank you for the comments (at least I admit my ignorance! But I'm willing to learn.). The lasagna idea sounds like a good one (now that I've figured out how to strip off the cabbage leaves without destroying them).

      Is the outer dough for a pierogi like pasta dough, or is it something else?

    2. :) I'm happy to share my Polish pride and cooking style. As for your question about pierogi dough comparable to pasta dough-kind of, sometimes, but not always, lol! Some recipes describe a dough with regular pasta ingredients (flour, egg). My mom, however, says the best have sour cream in it...and some add whiskey! She doesn't make her own (they're a lot of work) she gets them from the church and she doesn't remember how her mom or my dad's parents made them. I think a lot may be regional as well, with people from different parts of Poland making them slightly differently!

  9. Wow, Sheila, I'm impressed with your sense of culinary adventure and your quest to find the right recipe. Good for you, whether you got it right or not...hope you enjoyed!!!

    Daryl / Avery

  10. I sat across from you while you ate this Sheila LOL.

  11. Sorry, wasn't finished...loved reading your additions and subtractions Kat! I make a huge pot of stuffed cabbage about once a year--my mouth is watering for them now. The recipe I use calls for a tomato sauce with honey and raisins added at the end...what think about that?

    1. Honey and raisins?!?! Auughhh! lol The tomato sauce sounds fine, I guess if you want it sweet add the honey-but I don't like sweet golabki (thus the cringe and horror of brown sugar) so to me, no thanks. Why on earth would you add raisins? I guess I was brought up to be a golabaki purist.