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catfish rest copy

A fried catfish restaurant in Memphis where I was taken by Paul and Angela Knipple and their son Patric

As you know, I travel a lot but it is not often that I go to places I haven’t been before except for this month when I visited  two new countries (Thailand and Australia — posts about both to come) and one new region (the American south). I loved them all. Thailand because of my wonderful friend, Vippy and her fabulous hospitality and because everything there is so exotic. Australia because it reminded me both of Lebanon and England and because it was great being part of the World Chef Showcase, seeing old friends and making new ones. And the American south because of the landscape, the architecture (I dream of owning a house with a wrap around porch) and the incredible warmth of its people, as well as the lovely Lebanese/Americans emigrés who were interviewed by Amy Street Evans for her wonderful oral history project.

I was invited there by John T. Edge to be part of the Delta Divertissement which was just before the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium which theme this year was the Global South. The experience was great and I loved the food even though I missed the dinners (thanks to my jetlag) including the cabbage rolls that were served to round off the first day of the divertissement. I am not sure if, like sfiha and kibbe in Brazil, these have entered the national, or in this case the regional repertoire but I thought I would post a recipe I did sometime ago for a story in Food & Wine magazine. I gave the Syrian version as taught me by my friend Mohamed Antabli of Al Waha restaurant, giving it a Lebanese touch at the end by adding dried mint, garlic and lemon juice whereas Mohamed cooks his in tomato sauce.

cabbage rolls-parboiled leaves copy

You first need to separate the cabbage leaves and blanch them to soften them and make rolling them easier. Mohamed boils the whole cabbage and then peels off the leaves one by one which is faster. In Lebanon and Syria, we use a flat cabbage but the pointed spring one that is easier to find in English supermarkets is also good.

cabbage rolls-stuffing on leaf copy

Then you slice off the fat part of the rib (top right of the picture) being careful not to cut into the leaf and you arrange a thin line of meat and rice filling along the edge nearest to you.

cabbage rolls-roll copy

Be sure not to use too much stuffing as the rice will expand inside the leaf. You also want to roll the leaves quite loosely so that the cabbage rolls stay soft and moist. Then arrange the rolls neatly inside the pan with the loose side of the rolled leaf down, and invert a plate over the rolls so that they don’t come undone during cooking.

cabbage rolls-in pan copy cabbage rolls-inverted plate copy

Then add water to barely cover the rolls and place over a medium heat. Let bubble gently for about an hour not forgetting to add the dried mint, garlic and lemon juice mixture about fifteen minutes before the rolls are ready. Cabbage rolls are one of my favourites, and judging from what I have seen and heard in the Mississipi Delta, also one of their favourites!

cabbage rolls-with mint & garlic copy

Cabbage Rolls (Malfuf Mehshi)

You can use the stuffing below with peppers, tomatoes and eggplants and Mohamed varies on the dish by sometimes cooking the stuffed vegetables in a diluted tomato sauce. I prefer the simplicity of the lemony broth. Serves 4

1 medium white cabbage, core cut out

sea salt

for the stuffing

3/4 cup calasparra rice, rinsed and drained

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1/8 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 tablespoon cumin seeds

1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper

1 cup minced lamb

sea salt

to finish

1 large tomato, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tablespoon dried mint

Fill a large pan with water and place over medium heat. Bring the water to a boil. Add salt to taste. Plunge the cabbage into the boiling water and boil for 15 minutes until the leaves have softened. With a slotted spoon, remove the cabbage onto a large plate. Drain the excess liquid and let cool slightly. Gently separate the leaves and shave off any thick core but without cutting into the leaves.

Put the rice in a large mixing bowl. Add the turmeric and mix with the rice until it turns yellow. Add the melted butter, ground cumin, cumin seeds and pepper and mix well. Add the minced meat and about 1/4 cup water to moisten the stuffing. Add salt to taste, and with your hand mix the meat with the rice until well blended.

Line a saucepan large enough to take the cabbage leaves with the tomato slices.

Lay one cabbage leaf on your work surface. Spread 1-2 tablespoons stuffing, depending on how large the leaf is, along one edge and roll loosely to encase the stuffing – you need to leave a little space for the rice to expand; also don’t spread the stuffing all the way to the side edges so that it doesn’t spill out. Place the stuffed cabbage leaf against one edge of the pan, seam side down. Stuff the remaining leaves in the same way and arrange in the pan, making one layer at a time. Add the olive oil and half cover with water and invert a plate over the stuffed cabbage to sop the leaves from unrolling during cooking. Place the pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium low and boil gently for 45 minutes.

Add the lemon juice, garlic and mint and swirl the water in the pan to distribute the seasoning. Taste for salt and add more if needed. Cook for another 15 minutes until both cabbage and stuffing are done.  Remove from the heat. Remove the plate covering the cabbage. Let sit for a few minutes, then gently transfer to a serving platter. Serve immediately with Greek style yoghurt and good bread.

There is 13 comments on this post

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    Welcome to the states! I’m from the northeast (Massachusetts), but i’d like to visit the south sometime.

    In North Lebanon, alot of people use pomegranate syrup (dibis riman) instead of lemon juice with the cabbage rolls. I really like it that way because it adds a little sweetness with the sour.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    must try it sometime. and you must visit the south. it’s great.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    We were so honored to be able to show you at least a little bit of our part of the world. Hopefully you’ll be able to come back and spend more time with us. We just kept thinking of more things we should have shown you. Next time, fried chicken, soul food, and barbecue.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    i’m definitely coming back. loved being here and it was great to meet you and spend that first evening with you. i am sad i missed the cow’s heads barbacoa. fell asleep but i had good soul food in a fun place in belzoni yesterday and barbecue at steven’s (?) in greenwood. great place. looking forward to seeing you and exploring more southern food with you when i am next over.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    Hello Anissa. As I may have mentioned to you once, my family on my father’s side is Lebanese (though he was born here in the USA) and my mother’s side is southern from Alabama. I had the best of both of those worlds, foodwise, growing up. It was fun to read your take on the South and how good you felt about your visit. Did you make it down to New Orleans, as planned?

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    no sadly. not enough time. stayed in the mississipi delta which was great. must hear more about your ancestry.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    Great post, and wonderful recipe. Cabbage rolls like my Grandma used to make! Now perhaps it is time I learn to make them. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    you’re welcome 🙂

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    Anissa: We so loved hosting you here in Mississippi! I do hope you will come back. There’s lots more to see and eat!

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    i am definitely coming back amy. i loved being there and i can’t wait to do a proper road trip and see y’all (:)) again, and meet more southerners and lebanese/americans. i just loved everywhere i went and everybody i met. not sure if it is because i have a real affinity with the place or if it is because of all the old hollywood films that i have watched. xx

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    I love Mississippi and especially Vicksburg; the Lebanese-American there are lovely.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    yes, they are. i loved all those i met there, and i loved their stories.

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