Sweet and Sour Chinese Cabbage Rolls
Am I a food snob? At times. It’s true: I judge people who consider Side Kicks with ground beef to be an entree. I can’t help it – I do. Oh, or when a strawberry shortcake recipe is a package of frozen Pillsbury biscuits, strawberry jam and Cool Whip. That’s not a recipe, that’s a sentence. But the thing is, I have my own little embarrassing quirks and quarks when it comes to convenience food, so I really shouldn’t be so quick to point fingers.
For example: Cheez Whiz. My affection for Cheez Whiz shames me more than I can say. It’s taking a lot to admit this to you right now, and I’m seizing a bit as I type these words. I was with Mike for about two and a half years before I let him see this virulent side of me, and see it he did, when my ‘dinner’ one night was scooping globs of congealed Cheez Whiz (from a secretly hidden emergency jar that no one was allowed to know about) with long celery spoons. I flush, again, to know that I did that, and I’ll probably do it again.
I also consider Kraft Dinner to be a treat, and one of my favorite meals, which I learned to ‘cook’ from my mother (bless her heart, because she’ll be righteously pissed when she reads this), is a tin of smoked oysters heated in canned cream of mushroom soup and slathered on toast. Oh, or cheesy tomato sauce on toast. Or anything on toast. Maybe that’s why I don’t keep very much bread in the house.
Beyond my white-trash trappings, however, I do understand that there is a time and a place for convenience foods, and sometimes they don’t need to be a source of shame. I have been known to buy Thai curry paste or premixed Garam Masala and curry powders, despite the fact that when I feel the yen I’m more than capable of making them myself – and often do. I also buy frozen filo and puff pastry, because frankly it’s just not worth the effort to me to make it myself. There is a time and a place for cranking out handmade pastas, but I’m willing to recognize that it’s not a Tuesday night kind of activity.
That said, there are still certain paths that I’ve never willingly traversed, such as Hamburger Helper and Minute Rice. I have no reason for being so disdainful about Minute Rice, other than the fact that….it’s Minute Rice. Dancing visions of tiny styro peanuts in a bowl haunt my dreams when I think of Minute Rice, aided and abetted by commercials of disturbingly fluffy white rice that I watched as a child. Microwave rice: that’s just wrong. Minute rice: not too far behind it. The thing is, despite my tacit aversion, I had…..well, I hadn’t ever tried Minute Rice.
All of a sudden, I ‘m no better than one of my foul-mouthed ex-roomies who declared that she despised goat cheese, scallops, lamb, artichokes (except in pub dips), olives, parsnips, sushi and udon, despite the fact that she had never tried them. I fought that fight valiantly with her, arguing that you don’t really know whether it’s something that you don’t like until you’ve had it multiple times (and prepared multiple ways), but to no avail.
I tried to keep this lesson in my head when I got a surprise email from a very sweet Nice Marketing Lady representing Minute brown rice, who said she enjoyed our blog and then offered me a free sample.
Note: I said “No, thank you” to the fellow peddling ‘gourmet’ seasoning salts a few months ago.
I said, “No, but I DO really appreciate the offer…” to the woman who wanted to send me a just-add-water pastry dough mix.
But sometimes I get tired of saying NO, because you know what’s better than preferences, morals and pride? Free stuff. That’s what’s better. So, as you can imagine, I got tired of looking a gift horse in the mouth and asked – very kindly, of course – if maybe she wouldn’t mind sending over TWO packages of brown minute rice. But really, that wasn’t being selfish and greedy in my opinion. I was basing this on the principle that you can’t claim not to like something unless you’ve had it multiple times and prepared multiple ways. Since I was sure I would dislike it (I’m sorry, Nice Marketing Lady, but it’s true!), this was at least one way of pandering to my own innate drive to please everyone, so I could at least say I TRIED, right? And after all, I like brown rice. I like convenience. How could this possibly go awry?
Well, I made my minute rice. It was………okay. I do really enjoy the nutty chewiness of brown rice, and this certainly had the chewy but wasn’t quite what I was used to. The minute rice had less flavor than regular brown rice (which isn’t saying very much), and the texture was a bit spongier but in a fluffy way. A big selling point to me, however, is that the brown minute rice had the same nutritional value as regular brown rice so it didn’t feel cheap and dirty like using margarine instead of butter in a batch of oatmeal cookies. The few bites of rice I took on their own were….okay. Sure, nothing to write home about, but still okay. And I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say that there are times in this crazy world of ours where an ‘okay’ taste and texture with fair nutritional content but supreme ease of preparation is not always a bad thing.
I would not make brown Minute rice for a dinner party, but I would consider making brown Minute rice for a haphazard mid-week dinner when I wanted something light, satisfying and nutritionally competent to round out the meal. I also don’t quite know if I would make a bowl of brown Minute rice to serve alongside a stirfry, but I can tell you with due faith that it makes a competent substitute for both a South Western rice casserole and an Asian style cabbage roll filling (thank you again, Nice Marketing Lady, because I really did need at least two tries to convince myself).
Also, free stuff. Free stuff is awesome.
Sweet and Sour Chinese Cabbage Rolls
For the rolls:
- 1 head Napa cabbage, large leaves only
- 2 cups brown Minute Rice *
- 6 scallions (about 1 cup, chopped)
- 1.5 lb ground pork
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 1.5″ ginger root
- 5 cloves garlic
- salt and pepper to taste
For the sauce:
- 4 tbsp brown sugar
- 1/2 cup light soya sauce
- 2/3 cup rice vinegar
- 2/3 cup mirin **
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup oyster sauce
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 3.5 tbsp chili sauce ***
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 1.5 cups beef broth
* You can use 3 cups of precooked brown rice if you prefer.
** Mirin is a sweet Japanese rice wine. If you don’t have mirin, you could substitute 2/3 cup dry sherry with 2 tbsp of dissolved granulated sugar.
*** Your favorite spicy Asian chili sauce is just fine. I have a particular penchant for Sambal Oelek, however Sriracha or even a Cantonese garlic-chili sauce will do the trick nicely.
Preheat your oven to 350ºF.
Put a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil.
Carefully pull about 14-16 of the large outer leaves off of the cabbage head, being careful not to split or break them. When the water has come to a rolling boil, immerse the leaves a few at a time and let them blanch for no more than 2 minutes, or just until they’re tender. It doesn’t hurt to cook a few extra cabbage leaves, just incase you were stingy with the stuffing and need to make extra wraps, or some of the leaves tear as you’re rolling them. Both are possible. I’m just saying…..
Remove the blanched cabbage and lay the leaves flat on a large board to dry.
If you’re using brown Minute Rice, pour 1 and 3/4 cups of water into a smallish pot and set it over high heat until it comes to a boil. Pour in the 2 cups of Minute Rice, cover the rice and immediately turn the heat down to minimum. Let the rice cook for 5 minutes and then take it off the heat. Let the rice stand, covered, for another 5 minutes before uncovering it and fluffing it up with a fork. Let the rice sit uncovered for 10-15 minutes, or until is has cooled close to room temperature. Or, if you’re using regular precooked brown rice, just scoop 3 cups of it into a large mixing bowl.
In the mean time, put all of the sauce ingredients except for the corn starch and beef broth into a medium sized pot. Put the pot on to medium high heat and let it come to a simmer, stirring until the sugar is fully melted and the mixture is well combined.
Dissolve the cornstarch into the beef broth, stirring well to make sure there are no starchy chunks. When the sauce mixture is at a simmer, slowly pour the starchy broth in a slow steady stream, whisking constantly as you do so. Continue whisking for about another 5 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened up considerably but is still pourable. Take the sauce off the heat.
Add the pork in with your cooled rice. Finely slice the white and green parts of the scallions and throw them on top. Mince the ginger and garlic as finely as you can, or use a rasp to make short work of both and add them to the mixture along with the sesame oil and a generous sprinkling of salt and black pepper.
Gently work the mixture with your hands, being sure not to crush or mush the rice too much, until it is well mixed so the onions, garlic and ginger are evenly dispersed.
Put a cabbage leaf down flat in front of you and fan it out as widely as it will go. Dollop a fair amount of the stuffing mixture (about 1/4 – 1/3 cup will do the trick) and fold the flat end up around it. Tuck the sides of the cabbage leaf in so that the filling is snug as a bug and fully enclosed, and roll the whole thing upwards until you have a fairly tightly sealed wrap.
Lay the wraps seam side down in a 9×13″ baking pan or casserole tray, making two rolls. The full rolls will just fit in there, so if you made them a bit small (meaning there are more of them with a lower filling to leaf ratio) you’ll need to squeeze them up all cozy like. That’s fine though, because they’ll still cook evenly and be absolutely delicious even if they are a bit elongated. No need to be alarmed! And hey, isn’t it good to be conservative these days? All that to say that I used up all my stuffing and still had 2 pieces of cabbage left, but I understand how that won’t be the case for everyone – particularly people who aren’t as greedy and rash as I am.
When all of the filling is used and the cabbage rolls are rolled, pour the sauce overtop.
The rolls should be mostly swimming in their saucy little bath of sweet vinegary Asian goodness. Cover the pan with tinfoil and tuck it into the center of your oven for 15 minutes.
Uncover the pan and spoon the sauce overtop of your cabbage rolls again to give them a lovely glaze. Tuck the pan back into your oven, uncovered, and cook the rolls for another 30- 40 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened somewhat and the rolls look glazed.
Spoon 2-4 rolls into a bowl with a little bit of reserved sauce, and say hello to dinner.
The sharp tang of salt and vinegar meets some syrupy sweetness in the sauce and shakes it’s hand with a howdy-do. The rolls, meanwhile, are thickly tumescent with dense ground pork, brown rice, and the savory bite of scallions and sesame. These are not your grandmother’s cabbage rolls, to say the least. However, they are depression-era poverty food with an Asian twist, and they pack up remarkably well for lunch the next day, so I think ol’ Grams would have liked them anyway when all was said and done.
So I guess that Nice Marketing Lady was right – there IS nothing wrong with a bit of convenience, as long as it’s only once in a while and it doesn’t market itself as ‘substitute’, ‘flavored’, or ‘meal solution’. Compromise – that’s me, all about the compromise.
(and free stuff)
PS – Mike ate these rolls for dinner, then for lunch the next day. I still had *my* leftovers in the fridge due to a lunch meeting that day, and he eyed them plaintively before saying, “More? For me?” If nothing else, they have the Fussy Mike seal of approval in the palm of their poignantly saucy hands.