Make What Your Ancestors Ate During the Last Pandemic
Sweet and Sour Stuffed Cabbage, of Course
Do you have half a day coming up with nothing to do? Would you like to channel Great Grandma in the old country? (It doesn’t matter which old country she lived in, she probably made something like this—especially during wartime, pogroms, invasions, etc.) A hearty dish which, over the course of four hours or so, transforms inexpensive, humble, available ingredients into a masterpiece (and uses almost every pot and pan in the kitchen).
The following recipe was in my file, but I checked a few reputable sources before tying on the apron. My favorite source for this kind of information is The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden. She writes:
“Stuffed cabbage leaves, ‘holishkes’ are eaten in every Central and Eastern European country. Other Yiddish names for them are ‘galooptchy’ and ‘prakkes.’ There are many versions and different flavorings.”
Eaten in every Central and Eastern European country? You betcha. Read any Russian novel or Isaac Bashevis Singer story. That’s all they had: potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage. Maybe some rice. Maybe a little sugar and sour salt (citric acid powder, used for preserving vegetables). Some tomatoes in the summer. Those clever Eastern Europeans: with only four vegetables in the cupboard, they fashioned a feast that serves 16.
Roden’s recipe, as is typical, includes 1 lb. ground beef. Here’s my vegan version, with mushroom stuffing, requiring only ingredients you might have on hand or be able to get easily. (All measurements are approximate.)
1 head green cabbage
1/2 cup raw rice
1 large or two medium carrots
1 large baking-type potato
1 large yellow onion
1 egg, beaten
a small handful of parsley leaves, chopped
2 Tbs olive oil
1 1/2 lbs mushrooms
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes in puree
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup golden (or dark) raisins
1 more yellow onion, sliced
The cabbage leaves
Half fill a large pot with water. Bring it to a boil. Cut of the hard stem of the cabbage and remove any tough, discolored leaves. Gently drop the whole cabbage into the water, stem up, and let it simmer for about 5 minutes. The outer leaves will start to detach. Carefully remove two to four leaves—or as many as come off easily with tongs—and set them aside. (Sound too tricky? It did to me at first, but doing this is easy, and it works.) Return the cabbage to the water and let it simmer for a few more minutes; remove more leaves. It helps to cut into the base of the leaves near the stem. Keep doing this until you have at least 16 individual leaves. Set them aside (and turn off the flame under the water).
Bring about 2 cups water to a boil in a saucepan. Add the rice, a little salt, and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, until it’s half done—still hard to the bite in the center. (If you’re using brown rice, it will take about 20 minutes.) Drain in a strainer. Set aside. Note: Roden’s recipe, as well as others, calls for raw rice in the stuffing. If you parboil the rice, though, everything else won’t be overcooked when the rice is done.
Peel the carrot, potato and onion. Coarsely grate them in a food processor (or by hand) and dump into a large bowl. Wipe the mushrooms with a damp paper towel, remove woody stems, and cut into neat dice. (I used baby-bellas, because that’s what I had.) Heat the oil in a large frying pan and sauté the diced mushrooms until they begin to brown. Add them and the drained parboiled rice to the bowl. Stir in the beaten egg, half the chopped parsley, 1 tsp salt, and a few grinds of pepper.
Pour the canned tomatoes into the food processor, now fitted with the metal blade. Pulse until the tomatoes are coarsely chopped and pour them into a bowl. (Or chop them or crush them with your hand in the bowl.) Stir in 1/3 cup water, the brown sugar, the lemon juice, and the rest of the parsley. Season with salt and pepper, perhaps adding more sugar or lemon juice to make the sauce sweeter or more sour, to your taste. Stir in the raisins.
Make the cabbage rolls
Lay out the cabbage leaves on a large cutting board. Trim the rib end from the base of each leaf and cut out a triangle of heavy stem, which will make them easier to roll. Using a serving spoon or perhaps an ice cream scoop, put about 1/4 cup of filling in the center of each leaf. Wrap by tucking in the bottoms first, then the sides and top, making a package. It’s okay if they’re a little sloppy.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Spoon some of the sauce into the bottom of a heavy ovenproof casserole or dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. Arrange the onion slices on top of the sauce. Shred the remains of the cabbage, the inner leaves, and put them on top of the onions.
Fit the rolls, seam side down, tightly into the casserole —probably in two layers, with sauce in between. Pour the rest of the sauce over the top.
Bring to a simmer on top of the stove. Cover with the lid (or tightly with foil) and bake for one hour.
Serve and eat! And save for another meal or three.
An ample portion is two rolls with some cabbage and onions from the bottom, and of course a big spoonful of sauce. A little more fresh parsley on top brings this dish into the 21st century. Enjoy!
Since no friends are coming over to dine right now, pack about four rolls each into plastic containers. At our house, one container is in the fridge for tomorrow, one is in the freezer for another time, and I’ll deliver another one today to Marty D., our former neighbor who now lives in a nearby senior community, which is in total lockdown.
I’ll label the container, put it in a brown paper bag with his name on it, put on a mask and gloves, drive over there, and hand the bag to the guard. No visitors can enter the complex and the residents aren’t allowed out of their rooms. Talk about a scary situation. I hope this makes Marty feel like he’s getting a warm hug.
PS: Marty just called to say that he “gobbled down the whole container like a starving dog.” Glad to hear he’s healthy and still has his wicked sense of humor.