How can anyone resist “little pigeons”, the endearing name for stuffed cabbage rolls in Ukraine, Poland, and Russia? Variations of this traditional, comfort food abound throughout the region. Most are meat-and-rice- filled and stewed, though some are fried. Some are petite, others sizable. Most use fresh cabbage, others pickled. You’ll even find holubtsi made with beet and grape leaves. In contrast to meat and rice rolls, my plant-based variation is very climate protective. Low in fat but high in fiber and flavor, these holubtsi are stuffed with toasted buckwheat groats, loads of aromatics, mushrooms, and herbs, then baked in a chunky fragrant rosé sauce.
Tender and flavorful, these little pigeons will feed a crowd. Serve as starter or entrée, topped with plenty of vegan “smetana” (sour cream) from strained homemade soy yogurt, and a good sprinkling of chopped dill and parsley. Making holubtsi is a lengthy affair, like lasagna, so I like to break up its elements and make each ahead of time over several days.
Prep time 45 for the sauce + 30 minutes to blanch the cabbage + 45 minutes for the filling + 30 minutes to roll
Cook time 60 to 90 minutes
Makes about 20 cabbage rolls
1 cup raw buckwheat, lightly pan toasted
1 ½ cups unsalted vegetable broth, heated
2 tablespoons ground dehydrated soup vegetables
2 medium carrots, cut in a small dice
1 large yellow onion, cut in a small dice
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
3 cloves garlic, minced
10 ounces white button or mixed varieties of mushrooms, cut in a small dice
1 tablespoon porcini powder, or to taste
1 fistful of fresh dill, roughly chopped
1 fistful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
4 to 5 scallions, white and green sections, sliced
Up to ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Up to 4 teaspoons Barley miso paste, or to taste
4 cups grape or cherry tomatoes, cut in half, roasted
1 red onion, cut in a medium dice
2 tablespoons dry vermouth or unsalted vegetable broth to deglaze pan
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 26-ounce package Pomi or other strained tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried oregano, or to taste
1 cup unsweetened soy milk
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1 large firm Savoy or green cabbage, cored and blanched
Garnish with 6 cups of cultured soy yogurt, strained for 3 hours to make about 2 ½ to 3 cups of vegan smetana,
and chopped dill and parsley. Dilute more barley miso with an equal amount of water to pass around the table, if you like.
Hint: For this dish I’ve used barley miso, instead of salt for its deep umami flavor. To also take advantage of miso’s probiotic, health benefits, which will not be preserved during cooking, under-season the kasha filling and sauce and finish the holubtsi with raw miso, diluted with water, at plating or at the table.
To prepare the filling, first grind the dehydrated vegetables in a coffee grinder and add to 1½ cups water. Heat in a microwave for 2 minutes. As the water is heating, heat a large skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add the raw buckwheat groats and lightly roast, stirring frequently for 3 to 4 minutes or until the groats turn golden and fragrant. Add the hot broth, stir, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer the buckwheat for 7 to 8 minutes or until the broth is mostly absorbed and the buckwheat kasha is par-cooked. Transfer to a bowl.
Reheat the skillet for a few minutes. Add the diced yellow onions and carrots, lower the heat, cover, and sweat the aromatics for a few minutes until the onion softens and releases its water. Add the garlic and thyme now.
After a minute, stir in the mushrooms and porcini powder. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes. Uncover and allow any moisture to evaporate. Stir in the chopped parsley, dill, and scallions. Remove from the heat, stir in the kasha, and season with black pepper, 2 teaspoons of the barley miso, if using it now, and stir it in well to distribute it throughout. Taste and correct seasonings and set aside.
To make the rosé sauce, preheat the oven to 400°F. Place the halved tomatoes, cut side up, on a cookie sheet lined with parchment. Sprinkle the dried oregano on top. Roast for 30 minutes or until the tomatoes are softened, sweetened, and darkened on their edges. As they are roasting, heat a large skillet over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add the diced red onion. Dry sauté for a few minutes or until the onion begins to caramelize and adhere to the pan. Deglaze the pan with a minimal amount of vermouth or broth, scraping up the dark sugars from the pan. Stir in the garlic and after a minute add the strained tomatoes. Cover, cook at a low simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the roasted tomatoes, and the basil leaves, and season with ¼ teaspoon black pepper and 2 teaspoons of barley miso paste, if using it now. Taste to correct seasonings. Cool and pulse in a food processor to achieve a chunky consistency. Stir in the soy milk.
Remove any damaged, torn, or tough outer cabbage leaves. Remove the head’s core with a sharp paring knife, angled to remove the entire core deep within the cabbage. Boil enough water in a big soup pot to cover the entire cabbage. Blanch those few tough outer leaves first. Remove them after a few minutes when they have softened. Set them aside for now.
Add the cabbagehead, cut side down, blanching it for 5 minutes. Using a pair of tongs, turn the head over so the cut side is on top. The leaves will loosen from the head as they cook. We only want to par-cook the cabbage at this stage, though the softer the leaves, the faster your rolls will bake in the oven. Too soft, however, and they will tear. Gently tease each outer leaf off the cabbagehead with the tongs, one by one as they detach easily, and transfer each to a large bowl. The center of the cabbagehead with the smallest leaves will be difficult to separate, so remove it in one piece. Save 2 to 3 cups of the blanching water. This recipe should make about 20 large and medium holubtsi. Choose about 25 leaves, and coarsely chop those outer leaves, the small inner leaves, and any extra leaves. We’ll stew them in the pot along with the holubtsi to make a tasty side dish that you can also enjoy later.
To bake the holubtsi, you will need large 10-12-quart Dutch oven, overproof pot, or covered sauté pan. Add a few big spoonfuls of the rosé sauce to the bottom of the pot, add the chopped cabbage leaves, and top with a little more sauce.
To stuff the holubtsi, first use a paring knife to cut each leaf’s thick, protruding center vein level with the rest of the leaf. This will facilitate folding the rolls. Start with the largest leaves. Add 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of the mushroom-kasha filling at the bottom of the leaf, and roll it tightly up, folding in the sides of the leaf as you go into a tidy roll, about the size of a Chinese egg roll. Transfer each roll to the pot, placing it seam-side down. Arrange the rolls tightly in layers, topping each roll with a spoonful of rosé sauce as you go until you have used up all your filling. After saucing the final rolls, pour in 1 ½ cups of the reserved cabbage water to almost cover the holubtsi.
Cover and bake in the oven for an hour. Remove and test their doneness with a paring knife. If it penetrates easily, the rolls are ready. If not, add more liquid if it has receded, and continue baking, checking every 15 minutes.
To plate, add a few spoonfuls of the rosé sauce to the plate, arranging 1 or 2 holubtsi on top. Garnish generously with strained yogurt “smetana” and a sprinkling of chopped dill and parsley. Serve a bowlful of diluted barley miso at the table for additional seasoning.