Kimchi Golubtsi (Stuffed Kimchi Cabbage)
Stuffed cabbage is one of those heritage dishes that all manner of Slavs and Ashkenazi Jews make as soon as the weather cools and cabbage is in season. Despite the labor it takes to stuff and roll individual cabbage leaves, golubtsi are not particularly glamorous or photogenic. It is a true homestyle dish, so there are near infinite versions. My mother always stuffed savoy cabbage with ground beef and rice, then cooked it on the stove top in a sweet and sour tomato sauce. Non-Jewish versions use pork or a mixture of meats. The grain element could be rice, cracked wheat, or kasha. The sweetness is from onions, carrots, and tomatoes, sometimes with a little extra help from brown sugar or fruits. The sour element can come from sour fruit, vinegar, sauerkraut, or even pickle juice. Some versions stuff the leaves from a whole pickled cabbage, which adds salt and acidity and allows you to skip the whole cabbage leaf blanching step. That's where I got my idea for trying my hand at a kimchi stuffed cabbage.
Russian Studies and food historian/scholar Darra Goldstein is one of my favorite sources for learning about Russian foodways, and she suggests that Russians learned lacto-fermentation from East Asian trade routes. Though Russian styles of pickles may be less assertive than kimchi and preserved mustard greens, they nevertheless share an addictive salty-sour flavor and health benefits of live fermentation. Instead of just throwing kimchi into a Jewish-Russian stuffed cabbage recipe, I developed a version that uses Korean flavors and ingredients across the board. When you look at the history of culinary interchange between Russia, East Asia, and Central Asia, it is not at all surprising how much overlap there is in flavor. The main elements that kimchi add are heat and fishy umami. This isn't your bubbe's golubtsi recipe, but the tastes and textures will nevertheless be familiar, enlivened by the kimchi funk.
It is important for this recipe that you get "whole cabbage" kimchi, which is still not a whole cabbage head but a cabbage cut into halves or quarters, but that will give you leaves large enough to stuff. If you can't find whole cabbage kimchi, you can make the filling as meatballs and add chopped kimchi to the sauce. If you don't like spicy foods, you can use baek kimchi (white kimchi). If you are vegetarian or just don't like fish/shrimp flavor, use a vegetarian kimchi. This recipe makes 8 medium-large rolls, or 12 petite ones—enough for four people.
1-2 quarters of whole cabbage kimchi
1 lb ground pork or beef, or a mixture of the two
2/3 cup sticky rice, dry
1 Chinese wind sausage (optional)
1 tbsp sunflower oil or other neutral oil
1 medium onion
1 large carrot
1 Asian pear (or other large sweet pear)
2 cloves garlic
2 tbsp gochujang
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 cups chicken stock or dashi
rice vinegar, to taste
salt, to taste
toasted sesame seeds to garnish (optional)
Start cooking the sticky rice while you make the sauce. It is okay if it is a little dry/undercooked.
Coarsely chop the carrot, pear, and half of the onion. Put in a food processor along with the two cloves of garlic and puree into a wet paste.
Heat a saucepan to medium and add the oil. Pour in the contents of the food processor and cook until the ingredients are caramelized. Add a bit of the stock if it begins to stick to the pan.
Add the gochujang, soy sauce, and chicken stock or dashi to the saucepan. Cook until the mixture reduces to the texture of a marinara sauce. Taste the sauce, then add 1-3 tbsp of vinegar depending on how sour you like it. Remember that the kimchi is also salty and sour, so don't over season the sauce.
Preheat the oven to 375ºF while you prepare the cabbage rolls.
Put the other half of the onion in the food processor along with the wind sausage (if using). Mix the pureed onion with the ground meat, cooked rice, and a generous pinch of salt (two pinches if you are not using the sausage). You will need to do this with your hands to break apart the sticky rice and make sure everything is uniformly mixed.
To stuff the cabbage: cut the leaves from the kimchi quarters. Because napa cabbage is narrower than the savoy typically used for golubtsi, you will need to use two leaves per roll (or make very petite rolls). Lay a kimchi leaf on the cutting board and fan out the leafy top. If it is too narrow to stuff with meat, lay another one beside it so that the stalks are next to each other and the leafy ends slightly overlapping.
Grab a handful of the meat mixture—about the size of a duck egg—and shape into an oblong meatball. Pull the leafy ends of the cabbage around the meat, then roll toward the stems. It is okay if the leaves aren't as neat as a burrito or spring roll—the meat and sticky rice hold everything together.
Repeat until you are out of filling.
Place the cabbage rolls in a 10-12-inch square baking dish. They should be snug with each other but all in a single later. Pour the sauce over the cabbage rolls. Cook at 375 for 40 minutes.
Garnish with toasted sesame seeds.