The good old cabbage roll turns over a new leaf

In my family, cabbage rolls have been a potluck standard my whole life. My great-grandmother Agatha brought them to family gatherings, smothered in a sweet-and-sour tomato sauce with raisins. Yes, those ground-beef-and-rice-filled packets were a family tradition and, frankly, I hated them.

Yet, I can't deny the practicality of a party entree that is pre-portioned in a pretty leaf. In the spirit of open-mindedness, I decided to create a different cabbage roll entirely. Filled with ginger-laced chicken, fluffy rice and bright vegetables, then steamed in a light vinegary broth, these adorable cabbage rolls are a welcome, delicious, company-worthy dish that I'll be carrying to every event.

I contemplated different versions of cabbage and landed on savoy, for the ruffled edges and the characteristic sweetness that plays against the gentle heat of the filling. The leaf is round and shaped right for making a packet. Look for a heavy head with bright green outer leaves. Lower the cored, but still whole, cabbage into a pot of boiling water and peel off the outer leaves as they become pliable. Slice away the stiff inner rib and the leaves lie flat, so it's easy to tuck them around the filling.

Ensuring each bite will include a bit of chicken, carrot and some rice is the secret to a balanced cabbage roll. It's a bit of knife work; I think of it as a meditative task. Some people are squeamish about cutting raw chicken. Wear gloves if needed, use a very sharp knife, and make sure the chicken is slightly frozen to make quick work of chopping it into dime-sized pieces.

The celery and carrots are chopped into small cubes, and the ginger and garlic are finely minced, so the flavors are dispersed through the filling. If I'm in a rush, I'll pull out my food processor, pulse the celery, carrots and herbs into smallish pieces, and after emptying the work bowl, mince the ginger, garlic and scallion. In a matter of minutes, the filling is ready.

Your first cabbage roll may be a little lumpy. The second one will be better, and by the fifth, you'll be a professional. The bundles are steamed in the oven slowly, plumping the rice and gently cooking the chicken and vegetables. I cut a round of parchment to fit inside the pot and tuck it around the rolls to keep the steam close to the cabbage, not forming condensation inside the pot, which can make the bundles soggy.

My great-grandmother carried her cabbage rolls everywhere in a blue-and-white Corningware casserole dish with a glass cover, but I like to use a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven. Avoid cooking the rolls in cast iron, as the vinegar in the steaming liquid will do no favors for your precious skillet.

This fall, as the days get shorter and schedules get busy, let's give cabbage rolls a chance. They're a terrific option for family dinner, too, and reheat in their very own single-serving packages. Now I know why Agatha brought them every chance she could, and this new spin just might make a believer out of the rest of the skeptics, too.

Sesame Chicken Cabbage Rolls

Look for a cantaloupe-size cabbage with outer leaves larger than your hand. If you dislike touching raw chicken, wear food safe gloves, which are available in grocery and kitchen supply stores, pharmacies and online.

MAKE AHEAD: The filling may be made 1 day in advance, wrapped well and refrigerated. The cooked rolls will keep for up to 2 days. To reheat, make sure there is liquid on the bottom of the pan, and reheat over medium heat on the stove top, or in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.

One (1 1/2 pound) head savoy cabbage

1/4 cup toasted sesame oil

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup tamari or soy sauce

2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger root

1 tablespoon minced garlic

3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, chopped into bite-size pieces

1 cup diced carrots (about 2 medium)

1 cup frozen peas

1/2 cup diced celery (about 1 rib)

1/2 cup uncooked basmati rice

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds

2 cups chicken stock

1/3 cup rice wine vinegar

Bring a large stock pot filled with water to a strong boil. Using a sharp paring knife, remove the core from the cabbage, leaving the rest of the head intact. Lower the cabbage into the boiling water. It takes about 1 minute for the outer leaves to cook, and as they soften, remove them from the water and place on a cutting board. Continue to remove softened leaves as you are able. The entire cabbage should be softened within about 5 minutes. Carefully remove from the water and continue to peel the leaves away until you have about 20 leaves stacked up. (There may be leftover cabbage.)

Using a sharp knife, remove the center rib from each cabbage leaf, leaving the rest of the leaf intact.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sesame oil, lime juice, cornstarch and tamari or soy sauce until smooth. Add the ginger, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper and stir well. Stir in the chicken, carrots, peas, celery, rice, cilantro and sesame seeds, coating everything with the sauce and distributing the vegetables evenly through the mixture.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Scoop out about 1/2 cup of the mixture and place it in the center of a cabbage leaf. Tuck in the sides and bring the bottom edges together to make a tidy package. Place the cabbage roll seam side down in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Repeat with the remaining leaves and filling, stacking the rolls in two or three layers, if necessary.

Pour the chicken stock and rice wine vinegar over the cabbage rolls. Cut a parchment circle to fit the inside the pan and place on top of the rolls; this will help them steam evenly. Cover the pot and bake (middle rack) for 1 hour, until the rolls are cooked through.

Serve hot with some of the steaming juices spooned over the rolls.

Serves 8 to 10; makes about 20 cabbage rolls

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 10): 410 calories, 24 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 26 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 680 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

From columnist Cathy Barrow.

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