Thursday, December 12, 2013

Palestinian-Style Stuffed Cabbage Rolls, or Malfouf

Sometimes a little time produces a lot of joy. 

For us, this is a dish of joy.  Palestinians are known for their love of stuffing things with rice and meat, and if you are ever so fortunate to find yourself in a Palestinian's home, chances are good that you will be invited to share a meal like this. Garlicky and lemony, these tender rolls of cabbage filled with spiced meat and rice play a special role in the cast of dinner dishes that rotate through the Palestinian kitchen.

Behind us are the days of cousa mahshi, or stuffed summer squash; now, the cabbage beckons.  I had one last beautiful one from our final delivery of our CSA, and I considered its destiny.  It took some time for me to build up the gumption to create this meal, but once I did, I discovered that while this stuffed dish takes time, it is actually less fussy and easier than most of the other stuffed dishes. Malfouf, (or malfoof), is the Arabic word for cabbage, and this dish is so ubiquitous that if you way you are having cabbage for dinner, everyone will understand that you are referring to this dish.

Cross-Cultural Cabbage Rolls

While most Palestinians live in a world of precise definitions (we roll cabbage leaves this way), my world has been one of collision, of integration, of explanation, of translation.  My Palestinian mother pours lemon juice and garlicky broth over her cabbage rolls, my American father dips his rolls in ketchup.  So I learned to do both, and I served it both ways to my children, one of whom liked the ketchup, and the other whom preferred the lemon and garlic broth. 

Perhaps my hardest years of cultural translation were the years that I spent in the hills of western Pennsylvania, in my husband family's world of Steeler football, pierogies, and Sheetz coffee.  In some ways, this was another world of precise defnitions (this is how we make haloushki), and I had a hard time building bridges, or finding language to explain the world I had lived in.  But one day, my mother-in-law told me that Aunt Carol had brought "pigs in a blanket" to a family function, and I assumed that she was talking about little hotdogs wrapped in some sort of dough.  When it was time to eat, everyone clamoured in the kitchen - where are the piggies? - and I lifted the cover of a dish only to find what I had grown up eating:  malfouf!  Cabbage rolls, stuffed with meat and rice!  The only difference was that these cabbage rolls were cooked in a tomato sauce, rather than the garlicky broth I had grown up with, and that the meat used was ground pork, instead of the lamb or beef I had grown up.  Ah, I thought.  Pigs in a blanket. I get it.   

So while it isn't traditionally Palestinian, my mother does like to add a little tomato sauce to the broth, to give it a little boost of flavor, and my father and son eat this with ketchup.  My husband will eat any cabbage roll he can get his hands on.  For me, these little cabbage rolls, whether you call them malfouf or piggies, will always have wrapped up in their layers a little piece of home, both old and new. 

A Few Words About the Recipe

There are many different varieties of cabbages, and if you have a choice, choose a cabbage with leaves that are loosely furled, rather than tightly. You will notice that lighter heads of cabbage are more tender and cook more quickly, and darker heads of cabbage are tougher and take a little more work to soften.  Both are delicious.  The cabbages in Palestine are similar to the ones pictured above, light colored and easy to unfurl, whereas the ones that you will find in most grocery stores in America will be darker in color. 

Traditionally, the cooking liquid for this meal is water, but most cooks tuck in a few boney pieces of meat between the rolls of cabbage, to give extra flavor and nutrition.  As a big believer in the benefits (and flavor) of broth, my mother always cooks her stuffed vegetables in homemade broth, and I do as well.

If you have leftover filling, simply form little meatballs and place on top of your cabbage rolls, for some lovely little steamed rice meatballs.  Alternatively, stuff anything else you have lingering in your vegetable drawer - a tomato, a sweet pepper . . . and pop that into the pot.  It can be hard to judge exactly how much stuffing you need for the amount of vegetables that you have.

Make sure that your broth is well seasoned, because that is what will give your cabbage flavor.

Finally, serve your cabbage rolls with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice, spoon the garlicky broth over the top.  Palestinians also serve plain yogurt on the side, for dipping or eating alongside the cabbage rolls.

My mother's cabbage rolls, from a teaching session this past summer.


Malfouf, or Cabbage Rolls

1 large cabbage or two small cabbages

1 cup rice, soaked overnight, rinsed, and drained
1/2 lb ground meat, grassfed beef or lamb preferred
2 tsp ground allspice
11/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
3 tbsp olive oil

15 or so cloves of garlic, crushed
Seasoned stock or water, enough to cover the cabbage
1/2 cup tomato puree (optional)
A couple of lemons

Prepare the leaves:

The goal here is to remove all of your cabbage leaves, and to cook them until they are tender, flexible and become translucent.  The outer leaves of cabbages are darker colored leaves, and they are tough and require longer cook times, while the inner cabbage leaves are paler and more tender.

1.  Remove outer leaves of your cabbage.  Bring a very large pot of water up to a boil, and carefully submerge your cabbage.  Once the outer leaves soften enough, remove them with a pair of kitchen shears or a sharp knife.  Set aside.  Return your cabbage to the boiling water, and repeat process until your cabbage leaves are all removed.

2.  Cut out the central rib out of each leaf.  Then cut each cabbage leaf into sections.  If the leaf is large, cut it into 3-4 sections.  If the leaf is small, cut it in half.  Save any cabbage remnants to sauté for a tasty side dish for another night of the week.

NOTE:  If your cabbage leaves are loosely furled and fairly tender (you will know this because your cabbage with be very pale in color, almost white), then you may be able to skip the next step.  Your goal is for the leaves to be translucent and tender enough to roll, but not cooked so much that they fall apart. 

3.  Sort your leaves by color - make a stack of dark, medium and pale leaves.  Bring your water back to a boil and boil each stack until leaves are starting to turn translucent and are tender enough to roll.  Dark leaves may take 10 minutes to boil, and the palest leaves may only take 1-2 minutes.  Remove leaves with tongs.

Stuff and cook the rolls:

1.  In a bowl, mix together the ingredients for you stuffing.

2.  At a table, set out a large cutting board or platter for rolling, your stack of cabbage leaves, your bowl of stuffing, and a large pot, greased with a little olive oil on the bottom.  Start with your darkest leaves, as they will be on the bottom of your pot and will cook the most thoroughly.  Place about one tablespoon (less for smaller rolls) of filling onto a cabbage leaf, and mold it into a long, cigarette shape.  Roll your cabbage leaves tightly, and place onto the bottom of your pan.  Continue rolling, packing in your cabbage rolls onto the bottom of your pot as tightly as possible.  When you have completed one layer, scatter in cloves of garlic.  Then continue to build layers of cabbage rolls, scattering in garlic as you go.

3.  Pour some well seasoned broth (lamb or beef would be delicious, but any broth will do, mixed with tomato puree, (if using) over the cabbage, filling just to the top layer of cabbage rolls.  Place a plate on top of your cabbage rolls, then cover with a lid.

4.  Bring to a boil and then simmer on very low heat for about an hour, until cabbage leaves are tender and cooked.  If the top layer of rolls isn't fully submerged, add a little water or consider flipping them one at a time so that they cook thoroughly. 

Serve with generous squeezes of lemon juice, spoon the garlicky broth over top, and serve with a bowl of plain, whole yogurt and a little Arabic bread.


Related Posts:

*An Easy Introduction to Stuffed Vegetables: Stuffed Sweet Peppers and Tomatoes

*Palestinian Rolled Grape Leaves, or Waraqa Dawali

*Stuffed Summer Squash, or Cousa Mahshi


  1. Oh my goodness! This looks amazing! Pinning this one for sure. It defnitely looks like a 'good thing'.....Thanks so much! Blessings in Christ.

  2. Stuffed cabbage leaves are an Eastern European tradition as well, usually with a "sweet and sour" tomato sauce.
    Instead of steaming the leaves, try putting the head of cabbage in the freezer for 24 hours, then let it thaw. That softens the leaves for good rolling, and no need to sweat over a hot pot to do it.

    1. I am going to try it! What a clever idea. You don't have to cook your cabbage leaves at all before rolling?

    2. I just tried this method, without cooking. It turned out perfect

  3. Thank you for sharing this. My mother made a rendition which mixed the meat and rice with stewed tomatoes and cinnamon and garlic. We steamed them and covered them with catsup. My husband hates it, but I really look forward to it. I'm going to try steaming it with the broth and bones and serve with the lemons. Sounds delicious.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. My mother made a rendition which mixed the meat and rice with stewed tomatoes and cinnamon and garlic. We steamed them and covered them with catsup. My husband hates it, but I really look forward to it. I'm going to try steaming it with the broth and bones and serve with the lemons. Sounds delicious.


Trying this recipe? A question or a comment? I'd love to hear from you!