Ina Garten's Easy Trick For Flavorful Meat In Stuffed Cabbage

Anyone familiar with Ina Garten knows the love story the Barefoot Contessa shares with her husband, Jeffrey, is as old-fashioned as they come. So it should come as no surprise that the self-taught celebrity chef known for her elegantly easy style is also a whiz when it comes to surprising her partner of more than 50 years with his favorite old-fashioned comfort foods — dishes like stuffed cabbage

"Stuffed cabbage is like old-fashioned Jewish comfort food," Garten explained in a video tutorial for Food Network. "It's going to be really nice and cozy on a cold winter day. Jeffrey's going to adore this. So it's got three elements. There's a meat mixture, there's cabbage, and there's a tomato sauce."

Pretty basic. So what's Ina's trick? It's all about how Garten incorporates her sauce. Garten's tomato sauce starts off with sautéed onions and crushed tomatoes, but to get a sweet-and-sour flavor, she ups the ante with red wine vinegar, light brown sugar, and raisins, in addition to salt and pepper, before letting it simmer for a half hour. But here's the real magic. In Garten's version of stuffed cabbage the sauce doesn't just go on top of the meat-and-rice-stuffed leaves. Half of it gets mixed into the meat filling.

Garten's tomato sauce is in the meat filling too

For the filling, Garten combines one cup of her sweet-and-sour tomato sauce with two-and-a-half pounds of ground chuck beef, three lightly beaten eggs, one-half cup of diced onions, one-half cup of plain breadcrumbs (store-bought is fine), one-half cup of uncooked white rice, and a teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme. The extra tomato sauce inside the filling adds another little punch of sweet and sour tomato-y goodness, resulting in a much more flavorful dish than if it was just spooned over top the cabbage rolls as it is in most recipes.

But that's not all. Garten has her tomato sauce do triple duty in this dish. After blanching the fresh cabbage and separating its leaves, Garten uses a sharp knife to remove the rib from each leaf and fills the cabbage leaves with her meat mixture. Turning to her tomato sauce once more, Garten spreads a thin base of tomato sauce on the bottom of an oven-safe casserole to prevent the cabbage rolls from sticking to the bottom of the pan. From there, she place the cabbage rolls on top of the base sauce, and tops the dish with the rest of the tomato sauce. 

Finally, it's time to cover and bake. Voilá! That's Garten's simple recipe, with a sweet-and-sour tomato sauce that does triple duty, for one of Jeffrey's favorite old-fashioned dishes.