Malfouf.. Rolled and Stuffed Cabbage the Palestinian Way
Updated: Jun 19
Palestinians and most cooks in the Arab world love to stuff seasonal vegetables. Cabbage is the star of the winter season in Palestine. I remember walking through the old city of Jerusalem to go home after school where the (falahat) villagers have their freshest and most beautiful produce covering the sidewalks. This is as farm to table as it gets in Palestine. Villagers will pick their produce early in the morning and take it straight to the markets in big cities to sell it. Sometimes you will find heads of cabbage big enough to feed an entire family with cousins and grandparents too. This variety of cabbage is called "Baladi" its an heirloom variety that's available for a short season. This variety of cabbage in Palestine has a more intense cabbage flavor than the variety I find in the states. And you can plan a whole entire meal around this head of cabbage alone.
The word malfouf refers to both the vegetable and the dish itself. Malfouf in Arabic also means rolled.
Writing this recipe was a bit hard. Somehow making it with my mother and grandmother is much simpler than measuring out all the ingredients. Our parents and grandparents depended on their senses in cooking. By feeling and smelling the food. Most dishes are eyeballed but somehow they knew how much meat to rice, spice and cabbage they would need and it worked perfectly every single time. I too learned to cook that way. It’s hard to follow a recipe of the things that I grew up eating. But in order to preserve these recipes and delicious family feasts and save them for generations to come we must measure and write them down.
When you make this dish take precaution that the whole neighborhood will know you are making cabbage. One fall day I had the windows cracked open and my neighbor asked me politely what am I cooking! I said cabbage he couldn’t stop laughing the smell is cabbage crazy. I didn’t apologize I laughed with him and I said "once I am done I will send you a plate". Now I can’t make cabbage without sending him a plate full of this delicious garlicky, lemony stuffed leaves with a perfectly spiced meat and rice mixture.
1. 1 large head of wide leaf cabbage in Palestine this cabbage is called baladi and it’s definitely seasonal in the winter months. In the United States I often find a white wide leaf variety at farmers markets, or Asian food markets in the winter months.
Note: if you can't find the wide white variety of cabbage just use regular cabbage but not the curly leaves. If its a small head use 2 or more.
2. 2 whole heads of garlic. Separate the cloves but don’t peel them
*The Key Ingredients to this dish is garlic and lemon so don’t be scared that there is plenty in there. Cooked garlic has a sweet undertones when it’s cooked for a long time
3. Completely optional (I don’t do it) but for extra flavor add 2 pounds of lamb chops or lamb on the bone to the bottom of the pot. It will add a rich meaty flavor to the dish.
4. Lemon juice and lemon slices for serving
Rice Stuffing which we call hashweh:
Note: This rice mixture is perfect for all sorts of vegetables and meat stuffing.
3 cups short grain rice
4 cloves crushed garlic
Salt and pepper
2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 tbls olive oil
1 pound minced meat (lamb, beef, ground chicken or turkey (preferably dark meat not breast)
Wash and drain the rice a few times until water runs clear to get rid of some of the starch
In a skillet with 2 tbls of oil sauté your meat with the spices until it changes color and crumbles 5-6 minutes. ** see note
Drain the rice, add your sautéed meat to a bowl with the rice, test for seasoning, add the crushed garlic and toss to combine ** Most families in Palestine add their meat raw to the rice. But I like to sauté the meat first before I add it to the rice to avoid it clumping all together and it will yield for a fluffier mixture.
To prep the cabbage:
Heat a pot (large enough to fit the whole head of cabbage) add water enough to cover your cabbage by an inch. Bring the water to a boil
Sometimes the few outer leaves of the cabbage are tough so discard those
Flip the cabbage exposing its core. with a sharp knife cut a square around the core and pop it out.
Place the whole head of cabbage in the boiling water.
In 5-10 minutes the leaves will become a bit more tender and more translucent (don’t over cook your cabbage) this step is important so the leaves become pliable and easy to roll but not mushy. They will finish cooking with the rice later.
Take your cabbage and place it in an ice bath to stop the cooking process and help it retain its color
Start separating the leaves gently so they don’t break
With a serrated knife cut the ribs from the middle of each of the cabbage leaves. Separating the larger leaf into two or more portions. Save the ribs
You will be left with the inner core of the cabbage where the leaves are tight and wont separate. don't discard that chop it for a salad or see note below.
Now we are ready to stuff our cabbage leaves.
Stuffing your leaves:
You can do this up to 24 hours prior to cooking your cabbage. I often prep the leaves the first day (store them In the fridge) and stuff and cook them the next. It helps break the process down so I don’t go crazy.
Lay your cabbage leaf flat, place a 1 tsp- up to 1 tbls depending on the size of the leaf at the edge of the leaf and roll it tightly so the filling can stay inside.
Tip:You can fold in the sides of your cabbage like you would in a burrito but it’s not necessary in cabbage
Note: Remember the inner core of the cabbage where the leaves are tight and wont separate. My grandmother calls that "jajeh" it literally translates into chicken no idea why but she will make a hole in the middle of that and stuff it with the remainder of the rice mixture if there is any left. And will place it in the middle of the pot and stack the leaves around it
If you are using lamb chops:
Sauté them for a few minutes per side in the same pot you are cooking the leaves.
Lay all of the cabbage ribs at the bottom of your cooking pot tossing them with salt and pepper. Add your lamb chops if using on top
Arrange your stuffed cabbage leaves so snug together in a circle stacking the layers tightly on top of one another.
Scatter all the unpeeled garlic cloves in between all the layers
Add enough water to come up 3/4 the way up the sides of the pot (season with salt)
Place a heatproof plate on top of the leaves pressing it down. This will ensure that all the leaves will stay in place and not unfold open during the cooking process.
Bring the pot to a boil, bring the heat down to simmer, cover the pot and let it cook for an hour or so. Until the rice is cooked through and the liquid is absorbed.
How to finish he dish:
Optional garnish but so good:
Heat 1 tbls of olive oil, add 3 crushed garlic cloves, sauté for a sec until fragrant add a a tsp of crushed dried mint, and a juice of one lemon.
1. Turn off the heat. If lots of liquid is left in the pot. Carefully drain it.
2. Remove the plate from top of the leaves
3. If making the mint and lemon garnish then drizzle it all over the top. Serve with plenty of fresh lemons on the side.
Traditionally: meals like this you will gently invert the pot into a big round serving tray.
If you made this dish you deserve a standing ovation and you have just conquered cooking a delicious a bit complicated and time consuming Palestinian meal. Make sure you tag me if you want a standing ovation that is =)