This super-cozy bake from recipe developer Asha Loupy is inspired by classic Eastern European cabbage rolls but takes a leaf—or a layer, if you will—out of the lasagna handbook. Blanched cabbage leaves are stacked with spiced beef ragù and lemony herbed rice for a casserole that’s chock-full of all the flavors of cabbage rolls, without the rolling. Asha has two tricks for the perfect cabbage roll casserole (no mushy rice or soggy bottoms here!). First, reduce the tomatoes until they reach a thick, almost paste-like consistency. This ensures that you’ll get neat slices, without a runny, liquidy sauce. Second, parboil the rice (as you would for tahdig or biryani) and sprinkle it lightly between the layers. This gives the grains room to cook to fluffy perfection while baking.
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large bunch dill
large garlic cloves
lb. ground beef or plant-based meat
tsp. Diamond Crystal or 1½ tsp. Morton kosher salt, divided
tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for pan
tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
tsp. ground cinnamon
28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
large head of savoy or green cabbage
cups long-grain rice (such as basmati)
oz. crème fraîche
oz. low-moisture mozzarella
Heat oven to 400°. Start by prepping the beef filling. Coarsely chop 1 large bunch dill (you should get about ¾ cup), then crush and finely chop 3 large garlic cloves. Transfer a third of dill and a third of garlic to a large bowl. Add 1½ lb. ground beef or plant-based meat, 1½ tsp. Diamond Crystal or ¾ kosher salt, and ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper and mix with your hands to incorporate. Set remaining dill and garlic aside separately.
Heat 1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium-high until shimmering. Add half of beef mixture, dropping into pot in small clumps. Cook, undisturbed, until deeply browned underneath, about 5 minutes (or about 3 minutes if using plant-based meat). Stir and continue to cook 1 minute (it’s okay if the meat is not fully cooked through, it’ll finish cooking in the sauce). Using a slotted spoon, transfer beef to a plate. Repeat with remaining beef mixture. Wipe out pot.
While the meat is cooking, finely chop 1 large onion.
Heat 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil in same pot over medium. Add onion and remaining 1½ tsp. Diamond Crystal or ¾ tsp. Morton kosher salt. Cook onion, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until softened and starting to turn golden, 6–8 minutes. Add ½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes, ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon, and reserved garlic, and cook, stirring, 30 seconds.
Return beef mixture to pot and add one 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes. Break up meat and tomatoes into smaller pieces with spoon. Add ½ cup water and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is cooked off and mixture is just a little looser than tomato paste, 20–25 minutes.
While the sauce is cooking, line a large rimmed baking sheet with kitchen towels and bring a medium pot of generously salted water to a boil. Using a paring knife, cut about 1″ deep circle around core of 1 large head of savoy or green cabbage. Gently pull off 16–20 cabbage leaves, cutting away from core if needed. (Save any extra cabbage for another use.) Cut a small V in the bottom of each leaf, about ½” big, to remove the thickest part of the fibrous stalk. Working in batches of 3–4 leaves at a time, cook cabbage until just pliable, 10–15 seconds. Transfer to prepared baking sheet with tongs. Pat leaves dry.
Return water to a boil, add rice, and cook, stirring occasionally, until barely al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain rice and rinse under cold running water to stop the cooking. Shake rice well to remove most of the water, then transfer to a medium bowl. Finely grate zest of 1 lemon on Microplane over rice and add reserved dill; mix well to combine.
Rub bottom and sides of a 9×13″ baking dish with oil. Cover bottom of dish with a single layer of cabbage leaves, overlapping slightly. Set ½ cup sauce aside and spread half of remaining sauce over cabbage. Sprinkle half of rice mixture evenly over sauce. Top with another layer of cabbage leaves, then remaining half of sauce, and remaining rice. Top with a final layer of cabbage leaves.
Spread 8 oz. crème fraîche evenly over cabbage. Dollop reserved sauce on top. Grate 8 oz. low-moisture mozzarella on the large holes of a box grater and sprinkle over. Cover dish with foil and set on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake 20 minutes. Uncover dish and increase oven temperature to 425°. Continue to bake until cheese is golden brown and bubbling, 18–20 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.
Do ahead: Meat sauce can be made, rice can be parboiled, and cabbage leaves can be blanched 3 days ahead. Cover and chill separately. Assemble casserole just before baking.