Don't you love how everyone says their Grandmother was "the best cook!"? We'll spare their feelings by stifling our smug laughter, but well, they're just wrong. Sylvia Paley was the. best. period. Her chocolate chip cookies were transcendent, eliciting coos from every virgin taster, her pancakes the perfect mix of airy fluff and thin crispy edges, her brisket unlike any I've tasted since (sorry, auntie and mom), her gravy liquid gold, her fried kreplach superior to any soup dumpling, pierogi, or ravioli, and her fried chicken and corn fritters utter bliss drizzled with maple syrup. Oh, and the apple pie. Need I attempt to describe it? Let's just say it has lead to a lifetime of disappointment every time I take a bite of an apple dessert. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING can compare.
One--maybe the only--dish that she used to make that I would happily pass up as a child was her stuffed cabbage. I just wasn't into cabbage, period. And the rest of it--the sweet and sour tomato sauce, the rice and meat, didn't do it for me either. Ah, the follies of youth. Flashforward some years later:
1) I go to Prague for a semester and come to adore all things cabbage, a love I suspect was lying there dormant all along, entwined inextricably with my eastern european roots.
2) I start cooking, and appreciating all kinds of tastes I had previously rejected.
3) I go to Veselka in the East Village and seeing stuffed cabbage on the menu, am struck with a painful case of nostalgia. Unfortunately, what arrives is a brick of dense cabbage-wrapped meat and rice, covered with a gluey, white, mushroom sauce that I just cannot comprehend (those crazy Ukranians). Where is the tomato sauce? The moist seasoned meat? The perfect sweet/sour/bitter/juicy combination that only a Polish Grandma, and only OUR Polish Grandma could conjure? The desire for her stuffed cabbage practically gnaws at my insides.
Two years later, I actually get up the nerve to make it.
First, I email mom and Auntie A, and ask for the recipe....
I should have known better. Recipe? HA!
The email I received back from mom read as follows:
here's what I have on a faded piece of yellow pad paper, it says:
The only other clue I get is that the "ginger" referred to is crushed gingersnap cookies. amazing.
Oh, Mom. So thorough. "meat"? How much? What kind? Should I season it? Brown it first? How much garlic? What is a "small can" of tomatoes? With their juice? Without? Cook 1 hour? In the oven? On the stove? Covered? Uncovered? Singing the Polish national anthem?
Okay, so maybe I was overthinking things. But to be safe, I looked up some recipes. Nothing I found remotely resembled the ingredients or proportions mom had sent me. Complicating things were that every eastern european country (and some asian) has their own version of stuffed cabbage, and while Grandma's is pretty traditionally polish, it's kind of its own thing (aka the best you will ever eat). Finally, I came upon this recipe which was comparable in its proportions and filled in some blanks for me.
To be sure, it was an involved process, but oh so worth it. While I know Grandma's little hands would have moved like lightning through the "balls into leaves" step, I think she would have been proud of the result. There were some missteps, some torn leaves, some complaints from the living room of "are you done yet? I haven't seen you in like an hour." But all was forgotten once the aroma of tomato, garlic, and meat started to fill the apartment, our stomachs started grumbling happily, and something deep inside me--call it heritage, call it genetics, call it nostalgia--said gently but firmly (possibly with a slight Polish accent, in an octave a tinge higher than most), "You hungry? Eat some of this cheese. It'll be ready soon."
Grandma's Stuffed Cabbage (adapted slightly only out of necessity by the Mouse, with consultation from Gourmet)
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 28 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes
1 T ketchup
3 T brown sugar
1-2 T crushed gingersnap cookies (if you're going to use 2, reduce brown sugar)
juice of half a lemon
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 medium/large head of green cabbage (about 2lbs)
1 lb ground beef
1 clove of garlic
1/2 small onion, grated
3 T white rice
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Cook onion in oil in a 12-inch deep heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Add tomatoes with juice, reserving about 3 Tablespoons of the juice. Add lemon juice, ketchup, brown sugar, ground gingersnaps, salt, and pepper and simmer, uncovered, breaking up tomatoes into smaller pieces with a wooden spoon and stirring occasionally, 30 minutes.
Carefully so as not to tear them, remove leaves from cabbage and parboil in a pot of salted water until tender, a few minutes. If it is too hard to separate leaves, you can also boil the head whole for about 5 minutes, though the inner leaves may need another dunk to soften them. Transfer cabbage with a large slotted spoon to a large bowl of ice and cold water to stop cooking, then drain in a colander. Separate leaves, then cut off and reserve tough stem ends. Discard core. Pat leaves dry with paper towels.
Stir together beef, rice, 2 Tablespoons of tomato juice and 1 T of water, grated onion, garlic, salt, and pepper. Spread out 1 large cabbage leaf on a work surface and put 2 tablespoons filling in center. Fold both sides of leaf toward center (over filling, kind of like a taco), then fold bottom up over filling and roll tightly into a cylinder. Stuff remaining cabbage leaves in same manner, using less filling for smaller leaves.
Arrange stuffed cabbage rolls, seam sides down, in 1 layer over sauce and simmer, covered, 1 1/2 hours.Serve by itself, or with mashed potatoes if you need two starches, like me.
P.S. I gave mom a taste for later, since she'd already had dinner, and she proclaimed it tasted "just like Grandma's." Thanks, mom. And thanks, Baba.