Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

Cozy Up with Old-School Vegetarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

by 
Joe Baur
December 22, 2021

Stuffed cabbage rolls show up on menus across the cultural spectrum. They’re like opinions: everyone has them. (At least you can eat the cabbage roll.) 

This dish lost its historic symbolism by the time my grandmother started cooking them for her kids, my father and his sister. My aunt doesn’t remember ever paying attention to her mother making them, but she still makes her own using a crockpot with a side of mashed potatoes.

Of course, traditional dishes like this one are usually more than just something with which to stuff your face. They’re usually wrapped up in cultural or religious significance. In that respect, stuffed cabbage roles played an important role in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine.

Traditionally, stuffed cabbages were also known by Ashkenazi Jews, in Yiddish, as holishkes. They were cooked during the holiday of Sukkot to celebrate a bountiful harvest. On Simchat Torah, the day following the end of Sukkot, a pair of cabbage rolls side-by-side were meant to represent a Torah scroll, commemorating the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings.

Food historian and author of the "Encyclopedia of Jewish Food" Gil Marks wrote that the dish first entered the Jewish culinary canon in Iran 2,000 years ago. From there, it spread across Yiddishland from the Russian Empire and Poland to Hungary and the Balkans, where it was likely influenced by the neighboring Turkish sarma.

“Most of the traditional foods we eat on Jewish holidays start out with a seasonal reason as to why we eat them, and later a religious significance is tacked on,” Marks said in a 2012 interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Vegetables like cabbage were in season during the fall and very cheap, so stuffed cabbage became one of the most popular traditional foods eaten. Cabbage was the odor of the shtetl.”

No items found.

These days, few look upon cabbage rolls as the sexiest of dishes. Cabbage as a vegetable seems to have been unfairly tarnished as a relic from the diets of our grandparents or even great-grandparents. The dress code for such a dish is retirement home casual.

Thankfully, a new generation of Ashkenazi cooks feels differently. From Leah Koenig, who wrote the tome on Jewish cooking with the apt name “The Jewish Cookbook,” to The Gefilteria’s Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz, celebrating old school Ashkenazi cuisine through writings and events, stuffed cabbage rolls are something to look forward to again.

I don’t have any vivid memories of eating this dish as a kid. But I’m a sucker for a passport full of stamps and am drawn to the traveling record of stuffed cabbage rolls. For my recipe, I incorporated tips from my aunt and blended them with some of my favorite contemporary takes on the dish, like Shannon Sarna's at The Nosher. Instead of going with the traditional meat stuffing, I use a mirepoix (carrots, onions, and celery) with seasoned lentils. Then it’s all buried in a baking dish full of tomato sauce spiced with cinnamon, fresh basil, oregano, brown sugar, white vinegar, and lemon juice. 

We all have our favorite spices for tomato sauce, so please do make it your own. The same goes for the stuffing. This is the kind of dish you can experiment with relative ease. However you go, you’re bound to impress friends and family when you serve up a perfectly rolled cabbage leaf with a bit of fresh parsley for garnish. Nothing quite gives that cozy heimisch feeling quite like holishkes in the fall. Es gezunterheyt!

Vegetarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (Holishkes)

 | 
 | 
Makes 10 rolls

Ingredients

  • 1 head of cabbage

For the stuffing

  • 1/4cup of olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks of celery, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup lentils
  • 1 stem of fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 tbsp matzo meal or bread crumbs

For the tomato sauce
(Store-bought is also fine. If using, skip these ingredients as well as steps 4 and 5.)

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 stem of fresh basil, chopped
  • 900g of tomato sauce
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1/2 lemon juiced and zested
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
 | 
 | 
Makes 10 rolls

Ingredients

  • 1 head of cabbage

For the stuffing

  • 1/4cup of olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks of celery, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup lentils
  • 1 stem of fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 tbsp matzo meal or bread crumbs

For the tomato sauce
(Store-bought is also fine. If using, skip these ingredients as well as steps 4 and 5.)

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 stem of fresh basil, chopped
  • 900g of tomato sauce
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1/2 lemon juiced and zested
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar

Ingredients

  • 1 head of cabbage

For the stuffing

  • 1/4cup of olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks of celery, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup lentils
  • 1 stem of fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 tbsp matzo meal or bread crumbs

For the tomato sauce
(Store-bought is also fine. If using, skip these ingredients as well as steps 4 and 5.)

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 stem of fresh basil, chopped
  • 900g of tomato sauce
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1/2 lemon juiced and zested
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar

Directions

  1. To make the stuffing: Sauté the onions in olive oil with a pinch of kosher salt over medium heat for about 7-10 minutes, until they’re translucent. Add in your garlic, carrot, and celery, sautéeing those for another 7-10 minutes. Use vegetable stock to deglaze the pan if necessary.
  2. Add the lentils and seasoning to the pan. Sauté for 2-3 minutes and then add two cups of vegetable stock. Bring it to a boil. Once it’s boiling, cover and lower to a simmer. Cook for about 15 minutes or until the lentils have absorbed the stock. They don’t need to be completely tender since they’ll continue to cook in the oven. When ready, remove from heat and transfer to a mixing bowl to let it cool to room temperature. (Use a refrigerator if you have the space.)
  3. Once the stuffing is at room temperature, add the eggs and matzo meal, combining all of the ingredients.
  4. To make the sauce: Sauté the remaining onions with a pinch of kosher salt in olive oil over medium heat for about 7 - 10 minutes, until they’re translucent.
  5. Add the tomato paste, garlic, and basil, sautéing for 1-2 minutes before adding the tomato sauce. Season with kosher salt, cinnamon, and oregano before adding the juice and zest of your ½ lemon, your white vinegar, and brown sugar. Mix everything around so that the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cover.
  6. To assemble the cabbage: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Carefully separate whole leaves from the head, one by one, and blanch them each for about 1 minute.
  7. At this point, start preheating your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and cover the bottom of your baking pan with the tomato sauce, saving most of it to pour over the cabbage rolls at the end.
  8. Take one leaf and lay it down with the rib side up. Use a paring knife,remove some of the hard, raised portion of the rib at the bottom of the leaf, if it remains. Turn the leaf over and add a hefty spoonful of the mixture into the center of the leaf. Try to keep it together in the shape of a flat ball.
  9. Start folding from the bottom of the leaf where it was attached to the core and wrap it over the filling. Hold that first fold with one hand and use your other hand to fold the left side over the center. Continue rolling it to the right and keep it tight. To finish, use your thumb or index finger to push down the untucked portion at the top of the leaf into the roll. Immediately place the finished roll into your baking dish, seam-side down.
  10. After you’ve filled your baking dish with cabbage rolls, pour the rest of your tomato sauce on top. Then cover it with aluminum foil and bake for 60-70 minutes. Make sure to keep an eye on them to ensure there is still enough liquid. Add more if needed.
  11. The dish is ready when the cabbage feels soft and tender. When satisfied with the texture, remove it from the oven and feel free to serve immediately with an optional garnish of fresh flat-leaf parsley.

About the Author

Joe Baur

Browse Additional Recipes

Lunch Hack: A Truly Quick Tortilla Espanola

by 
Fifth Season
Read More

I Screwed up my Strawberry Patch, but the Silver Lining Is This Spinach Strawberry Salad

by 
Julie Laing
Read More

What To Do If You Binged “Emily in Paris” and You’re Now Binging Leeks

by 
Daniela Savone
Read More