Braised Cabbage Rolls with Italian Sausage and Fennel

December’s Daring Cooks’ Challenge had us on a roll! Olga from challenged us to make stuffed cabbage rolls using her Ukrainian heritage to inspire us. Filled with meat, fish or vegetables, flexibility and creativity were the name of the game to get us rolling!


For those of you who don’t know, I’ve joined an online community known as The Daring Kitchen which challenges members to make one dish per month and then post about your results on a given reveal date, which is the 14th. This is my first month, and that first bit at the beginning of my post is called the “blog checking-line” which will allow other daring cooks to find my post. Besides Daring Cooks’ challenges, there is also a Daring Baker’s challenge, which you know I will be participating in (watch for that later in December).

So this month the challenge was to make some sort of cabbage roll. The filling, spices, sauce, etc. were up to us to decide. I have never made stuffed cabbage but have always been curious about them so this was perfect. It’s something I’d often thought about making but was never at the top of my list so this sort-of “forced” me to finally try it! I’m very glad I did. These are delicious. A bit of work, but hard by no means. The recipe I ended up going with, after quite a bit of research and digging was Anne Burrell’s “Braised Cabbage Stuffed with Sausage and Fennel”. I love Anne Burrell so I decided to trust her to give me a wonderful recipe to set the bar for all future cabbage rolls. And it will be a difficult bar to raise because they were awesome. Savoy cabbage is blanched and the leaves are filled with a savory mixture of Italian sausage, sauteed onion, garlic fennel, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, egg and chicken livers. Yes, I said chicken livers. I figured, this is a Daring Cooks’ challenge so why not go for it? She said you could omit them but strongly urged you to try them. I was a bit put off rinsing them off and dicing them up by they added a nice earthiness and complexity to the flavor of these cabbage rolls. I bet if you didn’t know they were in there, you would never guess. She called for 3 in her original recipe but I went with 2 since it was my first time and I think I like that level of flavor. So go for it if you are feeling brave. 😀

The cabbage rolls are then braised in a sauce made from tomato, pureed onion, fennel and garlic and a bit of chicken stock and white wine. Delicious. They turn out nice and tender, juicy and packed full of flavor! I used sweet Italian sausage for the stuffing but I think next time I will go with hot. It just depends on what you prefer. The leftovers of these are just as good as the first day, in fact the flavors meld a bit more.

If you are interested in joining the Daring Kitchen, stop by the website and read up on it a bit. You have to “apply” before you are able to participate in the challenges, so there is a bit of a waiting period. It’s not like you have to interview or anything, just get yourself added to the “approved” list.


Braised Cabbage Rolls with Italian Sausage and Fennel

(adapted from Anne Burrell’s: Cook Like a Rockstar)

Ingredients for the Sauce:

  • 1 large onion, cut into chunks
  • 2 ribs celery, cut into chunks
  • ½ fennel bulb, cut into large chunks
  • 2 tsp. toasted and ground fennel seeds
  • 6 garlic cloves, smashed (use 3 if very large cloves)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 pound pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1(28-ounce) can San Marzano tomatoes, passed through the food mill (OR 28-ounces tomato puree)
  • 2 cups reduced sodium chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Ingredients for the Cabbage and Stuffing:

  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 large head savoy cabbage, tough outer leaves removed and tough inner core cut out
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, cut into ¼-inch dice
  • ½ fennel bulb, tough core removed, cut into ¼-inch dice
  • Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed and finely chopped
  • 1 lb. Italian Sausage, removed from casing if in links (sweet or hot, your preference)
  • 2 chicken livers, finely chopped, optional
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for garnish
  • 1 egg
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves finely chopped
  • Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock (or water)


  • Make the sauce: Puree the onions, fennel, fennel seed, celery and garlic to a coarse paste in a food processor. Coat a large wide pan with olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until it’s brown and crispy. Add the pureed veggies and cook them until they become very soft and aromatic and are starting to turn brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.


  • Stir in the white wine and let it reduce by half. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, bay leaves, and red pepper and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Reserve.


  • To prep the cabbage: Add the vinegar to large pot of well-salted water and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Set up a bowl of well-salted iced water. Add the cabbage to the boiling water and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, then immediately plunge it into the bowl of iced water. When the leaves are cool, remove them from the water and pat them dry. Reserve.
  • Coat a large sauté pan with olive oil and put over medium heat. Add the onions and fennel and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cook the vegetables until they are translucent and very aromatic, about 6 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and let cool.
  • In a large bowl combine the Italian sausage, chicken livers, if using, bread crumbs, Parmesan, egg, and crushed red pepper flakes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Add the chicken stock and mix well to combine. Stir in the cooked onions, fennel and garlic.


  • Make a tester patty, cook it and eat it. It should taste really good, if it doesn’t, adjust the seasoning.


  • Lay each cabbage leaf on a flat work surface. Spoon a generous 1/4 cup of filling into each leaf.


  • Fold the outside edges in and roll the leaf around the stuffing.


  • Arrange each roll with the seam side down so that the roll will hold itself shut.


  • Add the cabbage rolls to the sauce. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Uncover and simmer until the sauce has reduced to a thick, sauce-like consistency, about15 to 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Transfer the cabbage rolls to a serving platter and lightly cover with the sauce. Sprinkle with Parmesan and serve.


12 responses to “Braised Cabbage Rolls with Italian Sausage and Fennel

  1. They look delicious. Tried to make some once but ended up with “deconstructed” cabbage casserole. Tasted great, but just not the same as the real rolls. Gonna try again when can get back in kitchen.

    • Not a fennel fan? You could omit the fennel and add some rosemary and thyme for seasoning instead! I love it! There is a lot of fennel in italian sausage so you could substitute ground pork and/or beef if you prefer!

  2. Jess, these look delicious, and fun to make. I haven’t tried stuffing cabbage yet, but I will at some point. A comment about fennel. I used to hate fennel. That licorice finish… ah, not a big fan, but when cooked, and specially when cooked properly and paired with the right ingredients… fennel is wonderful. The more I cook, the more I find that certain things I used to hate, all of a sudden I embrace! 🙂

    • I agree about the fennel. My boyfriend doesn’t care for licorice at all so I was worried he wouldn’t like this but he loved it! It goes so well with the flavors in this and you really don’t get that licorice taste much at all. I love fennel, especially fennel seed, in Italian cooking. I use it in my lasagna as well, which I also make with Italian sausage. Delicious!

  3. Pingback: Red Velvet Whoopie Pies | therapy bread·

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