*See the post details on how to quickly pickle the whole cabbage head if the store-bought is not available.
For the cabbage leaves:
Separate each leaf from the pickled cabbage head gently, being careful not to tear, rinse and place in a large bowl
With a knife, remove the thickest part of the rib (stem); set leaves aside. Slice or chop small and damaged leaves.
Spread half of the chopped leaves (or half of the jarred sauerkraut if using homemade pickled cabbage #3) on the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven.
For the filling:
In a small skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté until translucent. Transfer onions with oil into a large bowl. Add a pound of ground beef, 1/2 cup rice, 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon sweet paprika, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 teaspoon black pepper, and 1 teaspoon Vegeta or salt. Mix gently with clean hands until incorporated; set filling aside.
Place one leaf, rib side down, on the palm of your hand. Place about 2 tablespoons of meat mixture on the edge of each leaf, fold sides to the center and roll away from you (see the step-by-step photos and GIF in the post). Repeat until meat filling is gone.
Layer cabbage rolls seam-side down and tight together. Cut the smoked meat into pieces and place it on top of the rolls. Spread leftover chopped cabbage leaves (or sauerkraut) on the top. Add in bay leaves; fill with enough water to just cover the rolls. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 1 hour, adding more water if necessary.
For the light roux (optional):
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a small skillet. Stir in 1 tablespoon flour. With a wooden spoon or a whisk, continue to stir flour over low heat until flour is golden in color. Do not burn it! Add 1 tablespoon tomato paste and mix well. Pour the roux over cabbage rolls and gently press down to dissolve in the juices. Do not stir rolls, as they will disintegrate. Cover the pot and continue to simmer for another 30 minutes.
Let cool slightly before serving.
For homemade pickling, it is imperative which cabbage to choose. Cabbage should not be with large hard veins and leathery leaves.
Only separate those leaves that are large enough to be wrapped in rolls.
When making rolls, there should be no exposed meat peaking through the leaf. If there is, remove some of the fillings or wrap another, smaller leaf around it.
Substitute rice with barley. I almost always do as it makes the filling firmer. If you overcook the rice, the mixture will be mushy.
To the meat mixture, add 1/4 cup finely diced bacon or smoked meat. You won't regret it!
If your cabbage leaves are too big (or if you want bite-sized rolls), cut them in half along each side of the rib, removing the rib completely.
Finishing the rolls with a light roux is not mandatory, but it adds silkiness to the sauce. You can also add 1 cup tomato sauce to the last 30 minutes of cooking instead.
Bake the cabbage rolls in the oven if you prefer: place them in a casserole dish, tuck the smoked meat in between, cover, and simmer on 350F for 2-3 hours.