Cavolo Ripieno, Italian Cabbage Rolls

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Imagine the smell of Italian sauce drifting pleasantly through your kitchen as you prepare these delightful cabbage rolls. Historically cabbage rolls have roots in the ancient middle east and spread to Eastern Europe and Scandinavia as trade roots developed and people migrated. Both savory and sweet cabbage rolls recipes abound. Sometimes filled with meat, poultry, rice, sauerkraut, raisins, brown sugar, and more. So in this evolution, it seems only right to now have a plant-based recipe for this universal comfort food!

savoy cabbage

savoy cabbage


This recipe uses savoy cabbage utilizing its crinkled leaves to soak up all that marvelous tomato sauce. Italian cannellini beans pair well with the Italian seasoning, vegetables, garlic, pine nuts, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese that make up this tasty stuffing. To make the recipe vegan replace the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese with nutritional yeast. Use your favorite Marinara sauce or make a batch of Pomodoro sauce that is included here. Top it all off with fragrant slivers of fresh basil. A new favorite Meatless Monday entrée!

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4 to 6 servings


1 head savoy cabbage

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

½ cup onions, small diced

½ cup carrots, small diced

½ cup celery, small diced

½ cup green pepper, small diced

1 teaspoon garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dry Italian seasoning

2 cups cooked cannellini beans or great northern beans (about 1-15 oz can drain, rinsed)

1 tablespoon white miso paste

2 tablespoon filtered water

¼ cup pine nuts

¼ cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, finely grated or nutritional yeast for vegan

½ teaspoon sea salt

2 cups Pomodoro sauce (see recipe below) or your favorite Marinara sauce, divided

¼ cup dry white wine

8 large fresh basil leaves, finely shredded

Mise en place (French for everything in its place) assembled before begining.

Mise en place (French for everything in its place) assembled before begining.


1.     Remove the core from the head of cabbage. Carefully remove eight large leaves (or 12 small leaves) from the head of cabbage.

2.     In a large sauce pot bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Gently place the cabbage leaves in the boiling water and cook until pliable, about four to five minutes. Drain in a colander and gently rinse with cold running water to stop the cooking. Place the leaves on a dry dish towel until ready to use. Remove a small v-cut from the thick core at the bottom of each leaf.

Cabbage leaves blanched and drying on tea towel.

Cabbage leaves blanched and drying on tea towel.

3.     In a large cast iron skillet over medium heat add the olive oil and heat until it shimmers. Add the onions, carrots, celery, and green pepper. Sauté until softened, about four to five minutes. Add the garlic, and Italian seasoning and cook until fragrant, about one minute more. Remove from the heat.

4.     Preheat the oven to 375°.

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5.     Thoroughly mash one cup of the beans with the miso paste, two tablespoons of filtered water, and salt until smooth (in a mini-food processor or by hand with a hand-held potato masher). Gently fold in the remaining whole beans, the sautéed vegetables, pine nuts, and cheese. Mix well. Taste, Think, Transform with more salt if desired.  

Stuffing placed on blanched cabbage leaves with a v cutout of cabbage core at bottom of leaf.

Stuffing placed on blanched cabbage leaves with a v cutout of cabbage core at bottom of leaf.

6.     Divide the filling mixture into eight or twelve portions depending on the number of leaves being used. Place each portion of the mixture on the center bottom of each leaf. Gently fold the sides over and roll up from the bottom to make a neat package.

Oven ready

Oven ready

7.     Mix half the Pomodoro or Marinara sauce and the wine into a baking dish large enough to hold all the cabbage rolls. Lay the cabbage rolls seam side down in the pan. Spoon the remaining Pomodoro sauce over the rolls and bake thirty to forty-five minutes until heated thoroughly and bubbling.

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8.     Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the fresh basil. Serve immediately.

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Pomodoro Sauce

My love for Italian food began at an early age, long before it became an American favorite. My parent’s best friends were Italian. They introduced wonderful dishes of lasagna, spaghetti with meatballs, and pizza to our family. And what made all the difference was the sauce, called Sunday gravy by some. Pomodoro means quite simply “love apple”. I consider this definition well suited for this rich tomato sauce since falling in love with ripe garden tomatoes at a young age. It is now called spaghetti sauce or Marinara sauce in America. Luckily, I learned to make this sauce years ago from our Italian friends. The secret seems to be the two-fold. First, the tomato paste is slowly caramelized in olive oil. Secondly, the tomatoes with the addition of the caramelized tomato paste and seasonings are simmered for hours, sometimes days. This was difficult because it needed to be stirred often so not to burn on the bottom. Lately, I have turned to a slow cooker on low which solves this problem and allows the sauce the time it needs to develop a deep, savory and satisfying flavor.

2 quarts sauce

¼  cup extra virgin olive oil

1 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste

½ tablespoon fresh mashed garlic

2 quarts ripe tomatoes or 2 (28 ounces) cans certified San Marzano tomatoes

2 tablespoons dried Italian seasoning

2 pieces of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese rind (optional)

sea salt to taste

1.     Heat the olive oil over very low heat in a five-inch cast iron pan. (I use a simmer plate underneath the pan over a gas flame for a uniform low heat). Distribute the tomato paste evenly in the pan. Stir with a wooden spoon every five to ten minutes as the sauce caramelizes. After about forty-five minutes, when the sauce turns from bright red to rusty brown add the mashed garlic. Stir and cook for another five minutes.

2.     In a deep sauce pot bring the tomatoes to a simmer. Remove from the heat and pass through a food mill to remove the seeds and skin from the pulp and juice. I have an attachment to my Kitchen Aid mixer that does this efficiently. It is not necessary to simmer if using the San Marzano tomatoes.

3.     In a slow cooker mix the tomato pulp with juice, caramelized tomato paste with garlic, the Italian seasoning and optional cheese rind. Cover and simmer on low heat for a minimum of eight hours, stirring every other hour.

4.     The sauce is ready when it has thickened, turned from bright red to deep ruddy red and has a deep savory tomato flavor. If bitterness is detected, it has not simmered long enough. Discard the cheese rind. Taste, think, transform with kosher salt to taste.

The sauce may be refrigerated up to a week or frozen up to six months but is best used immediately. The only difficulty with making this sauce is that it will fill your home with a lovely smell that will entice you to taste it often.