ELEGAN AND IMPRESSIVE, YET SECRETLY SIMPLE by Olivia Mack McCool
A holiday centerpiece and irresistible cookies to match
I just love the notion that so many of the foods we love (think boeuf bourguignon or pasta e fagioli) started out as peasant food made with leftover bits that were available and then transformed into something spectacular. Chou Farci, which means “Stuffed Cabbage” in French, is exactly that kind of dish. The ingredients of ground meat, cabbage and vegetables are as humble as it gets but it's the way they are layered together that make this a showstopping dish.
Every year for the holidays I make this as an appetizer. The instant you place it down on a table you start to hear the “oohs” and “aahs.” It looks extremely impressive with its beautiful cabbage leaf display on the top. But only you and I know the secret of how easy it was to put together. There are a few steps, but none of them require great culinary skill. After you make this once, you’ll barely have to look at the recipe the next time.
Granted, you probably have other things you’re making for the holiday meal. Fortunately, you can make this one in stages. I like to chop all the vegetables two days ahead and store them in the refrigerator, then cook the filling one day ahead. And, finally, the morning or afternoon of the day I plan to serve, I’ll cook the cabbage and assemble the whole thing. Then the only remaining step is to bake it later that evening.
This recipe can be made with almost any kind of ground meat: beef, lamb, veal, pork or even sausage all work really well. It’s only half a pound for the whole recipe, which lends delicious flavor but doesn’t weigh down your guests in preparation for the main event. With that in mind, it also makes a lovely side dish or an elegant lunch.
A few tips on ingredients and equipment: Savoy cabbage is used here because of its stunning lacey texture. It also holds up a little better than traditional green cabbage. If you’re having a hard time finding it, simply ask the produce department at your preferred supermarket or better yet, one of the vendors at the farmers market. I love the meat (and the service!) at N&K Prime Marketplace on Springfield Avenue. Not only do they have excellent quality ground meat for this dish, they also make their own beef stock that is both rich and flavorful. I highly recommend buying a quart of their stock to use in this dish. You can freeze any unused stock to use later in any of your holiday dishes that need that extra boost of flavor.
I call for a 9-inch springform pan because in the event anything sticks, it’s easy to pop the sides off. But if you don’t have one, you can also use a cake pan or a soufflé dish of a similar size and butter it really well. A pan that is 8 inches will work fine; your “cake” will be slightly taller.
Olivia Mack McCool is a recipe developer, cookbook author, food stylist and local mom who lives in Maplewood. For more of her work and recipes, check out her website oliviamackmccool.com and follow along on Instagram @oliviamackmccool.
Chou Farci (Stuffed Cabbage)
Serves 6 to 8
1 large head savoy cabbage
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound ground lamb, beef, veal or pork
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 medium carrots, finely chopped
10 ounces mixed mushrooms (cremini, shiitake, oyster, etc.), finely chopped
2 to 3 sprigs thyme, leaves stripped
1 teaspoon ground allspice
5-6 grates fresh nutmeg or ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup beef, chicken or vegetable stock
1 large egg, beaten
⅓ cup plain breadcrumbs
¼ cup chopped parsley
Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
1. Bring a big pot of water to a boil and season generously with salt. Meanwhile, core the cabbage and separate the leaves until you get to the center, discarding any very coarse outer ones. You should end up with about 16-18 leaves. Cook the leaves in the boiling water for 6 minutes until bright green and soft, working in batches if you need to. Drain and set aside to cool.
2. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and set aside. Put a large pretty cabbage leaf, domed side down, in the middle of the pan. If any of your leaves are too curved, simply remove the thick rib with a sharp knife, which will flatten it out. Continue arranging the leaves, shingling one on top of another until the entire base and sides are well covered. Make sure some of the leaves overhang the sides by a few inches. You won’t use all of the leaves at this point; reserve the remaining leaves for layering with the filling.
3. Heat the butter and olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the ground meat, breaking it apart well with a wooden spoon. Cook for 5-6 minutes until the meat is browned, stirring occasionally. Don’t worry if you’re getting a lot of stuck-on bits; those will come up when you add the liquid.
4. Add in the onion, garlic, carrot, mushrooms and thyme and sauté, stirring often, for 8-10 minutes until soft. Add in the spices and tomato paste and cook for another 2 minutes. Pour in the stock and scrape any stuck on bits off the bottom of the pan. Let the mixture simmer for about 5 minutes until some of the liquid has been absorbed. Transfer to a bowl to let cool.
5. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Season the mixture to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Once cooled, fold in the egg, breadcrumbs and parsley. Spread one third of the mixture in the cabbage-lined pan and top with a cabbage leaf or two to cover. Repeat with another third of the filling and a layer of cabbage leaves. Finish with the remaining filling and a final layer of cabbage leaves. Tuck in all the overhanging leaves towards the center and press down gently.
6. Bake for 40 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, then unmold by inverting a plate or round platter over the pan. Flip the plate and pan, and remove the pan. Serve immediately, cut into slices.
This year I’m adding a new holiday tradition into the cookie rotation. They are called Biscochitos and are a holiday tradition from New Mexico. Fun fact: They’re the official state cookie. Tasting like the best cinnamon sugar shortbread cookie you’ve ever had, the secret ingredient is rendered lard. If that makes you raise an eyebrow, bear with me. I promise you, after one bite that absolutely melts in your mouth, you’ll be on board. You can buy good quality lard at a butcher or a farmer’s market, and it keeps for a long time in the refrigerator. The dough itself is flavored with orange and anise seed and then gets a quick bath in cinnamon sugar before the cookies go in the oven. You can cut them into any shape that strikes your holiday fancy.
Makes 30-34 cookies
3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1¼ cups lard
¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon anise seed, lightly crushed in a mortar and pestle or under a heavy skillet
1 teaspoon vanilla
Zest of 1 orange
Cinnamon Sugar Coating:
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and kosher salt. Set aside.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the lard, sugar, crushed anise seed, vanilla and orange zest until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the sides using a rubber spatula, add the egg and beat until well combined, about 30 seconds.
3. Gradually add the dry ingredients into the mixer on low speed. If your dough is still too dry to form a ball, gradually add 1-2 tablespoons of water until it’s moist enough to come together. Divide the dough in half, shape into disks and wrap each disk in plastic. Chill in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
4. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon for the coating. On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough until it is a quarter-inch thick. Cut into preferred shapes and set your dough scraps aside. Lay each cookie in the cinnamon sugar and gently press to coat the underside, then delicately transfer the cookie, cinnamon sugar side up, to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with all the cookies you have cut out.
5. Bake for 12-14 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through, until the bottoms are just golden brown. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack. Repeat with the next batch of cookies, rerolling the dough scraps until you have used all your dough.
6. Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to 5 days.