Dan Whalen writes recipes of unholy alliances. The professional burrito-builder, obsessive home cook, and foodinmybeard.com host just released cookbook, Stuffed: The Ultimate Comfort Food Cookbook, features unexpected combinations of international dishes loaded with food-truck-goodness and all the appeal of a frat boy munch out. And I can’t wait to try my hand at cooking up some of this food-for-dudes that celebrates late night gotta-have-it grub.
Whalen presents his culinary mashups in outside-the-box bundles of comfort food, jam- packed parcels, wraps, roll-ups and balls stuffed to overflowing with plenty of heat, ooze, and gush. But I bypass all the predictable mac-and-cheese stuffed chiles and meatballs and the pork belly sliders for a more exotic dish: Thai Coconut Chicken Stuffed Cabbage. The recipe is an interpretation of the sweet and sour stuffed cabbage rolls from the Russian/Polish dishes of my youth combined with my current obsession for hot, gingery Thai curry broths. Poland meets Thailand. I can’t wait to see how Whalen stuffs soup inside a cabbage leaf.
I wonder if I’m really up for the aroma of cabbage rolls, a persistent odor that hangs around kitchens where traditional holishkes (Yiddish) or galumpkis (Polish) are prepared. But the anticipated heady perfume of Thai food’s holy trinity of lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal wins out. The blanched elephant ear sized leaves of cabbage resemble transparent spring roll wrappers and are perfect vessels for the stuffing of ground chicken, mushrooms, snap peas, and cooked rice noodles laced with pungent fish sauce, cilantro, ginger, and fresh red Thai chiles. The scent of Thailand fills my kitchen.
I use only 3 of the 5-10 suggested chile peppers. Perhaps Whalen meant dried ones, but the recipe shows no preference. As with each of his recipes, he rates this dish on scales of heat and pig-out factor. Earning a low 2.3 gluttony rating and a respectably high 6.5 heat index, I’ve certainly wimped out here in the heat department.
The sauce is a cinch. Rich coconut milk is the base for steeping a lemongrass-kaffir-galangal bouquet along with chicken stock and lime zest. The strained, creamy 45 minute reduction bathes the leafy parcels packed in the casserole like Asian bechamel, thickening after an hour in a 350º oven. I keep some of the sauce in reserve for presentation (and intermittent taste-testing by spoon).
While Whalen’s cookbook sings the praises of gluttony and macho kitchen cuisine, Thai Coconut Chicken Stuffed Cabbage is surprisingly refined. The rolls, lightly browned and bubbling in a lake of sweet aromatic coconut cream sauce, deliver a meaty, delicate, and spicy crunch. Whalen’s hybrid is true fusion cuisine reflecting modern food cravings, yet the dish meets the Stuffed requirement in a big gulp, eat-with-your-fingers surprise package (though I personally used a fork, and I’m going with more red peppers next time). For Whalen, there’s more than one way to stuff a cabbage leaf.
Thai Coconut Chicken Stuffed Cabbage
(Makes 12-15 rolls)
5 lemongrass stalks
2 (14-ounce cans coconut milk)
2 cups chicken stock
20 kaffir lime leaves
Stalks and roots of 1 bunch cilantro
2 chunks fresh or dried galangal (if you can find it)
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon lime zest
1 1/2 pound ground chicken
1 1/2 cups chopped mushrooms
1 cup chopped snap peas
5 to 10 Thai red chiles, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece ginger, minced
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 cup cooked rice noodles
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 head green cabbage
1 or 2 limes, cut into wedges
STEEP THE SAUCE: Bruise and break the lemongrass with the back of your knife. Combine all of the sauce ingredients in a heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for 30-45 minutes. Strain into a bowl.
MAKE THE FILLING: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Prepare the cabbage by removing some of the outer damaged leaves. Carefully remove 12-15 large leaves without damaging them. Blanch the cabbage leaves for 5-7 minutes, until they are soft enough to wrap. Divide the chicken mixture into 12-15 equal parts. Stuff the cabbage with the chicken mixture and wrap tightly.
COOK IT: Preheat the oven to 350º. Put a ladle of the sauce on the bottom of the baking dish. Line up the cabbage rolls with the seam side down and ladle more sauce over the top until it comes about three-fourths of the way up the cabbage. You probably won’t use it all. Bake for 1 hour, or until the meat is cooked through.
Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with the lime wedges, and don’t forget because the lime juice is essential to the flavor of the dish.