Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Grandma's Stuffed Cabbage

Dear Boo,

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:

"Parboil leaves
l sm. can tomatoes
2T rice
1/2 sm onion grated
balls into leaves"

"cut up onion and sautee
add 1/2 can tomatoe sauce w/ 1 can boiling H2O
little ketchup
1/2 lemon
brown sugar
T orange jam or ginger....
cook 1 hr."

enjoy...my mouth is watering...i'll have to be making this too...xoma

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."


The Mouse

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

Making sauce:
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.

Stuffing cabbage:
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.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When Life Gives You Apples...

"Comrades - real comrades - are your family. Bonds of the spirit are stronger than blood, and a true friend is worth a thousand kin."
-Euripides, 'Orestes'. (Written 2,400 years ago.) (Yes, this includes Mice.)

"I guess you're just what I needed/ I needed someone to feed" - the Cars

Dear Mouse,

There were quite a few contenders for the title of this post, most of them along the lines of "Happy Valentines Day To Me", "Snowpocalypse Now", or the ever popular, "Really??!!??" But none of these had anything to do with food.

I'm thinking of selling the movie rights to my week/end. You can't write this s**t. Of course, I'd have to alter it somewhat. No one would believe it all, and I would be sent home from the pitch meeting with a stern admonition to review all of Sex & the City's plotlines before attempting so blatantly to steal. I believe it would read more like Sex & the City meets 'Lost' with a sprinkling of 'Planes Trains and Automobiles' and a soupcon of 'Schindler's List'.

I can't possibly write it all out. I just tried like five times and erased it all, boring myself. How bout this tried and true format instead?

Things To Remember:

* Cabin fever is real. Snowmaggeddon hit us in DC resulting in 4 cancelled shows and 3 days housebound. I stopped making eye contact and hid in the bathtub.
* "Snowmaggedon" is ridiculous.
* If your band meeting gets rescheduled more than 3 times, it's not going to happen, even if you came into NYC for it.
* It is possible for a theatre to both cancel your show AND call you back to DC a day early so you can be there to not do it.
* Amtrak will never ask to look at your ID, unless of course you have to get back to DC to not do your show, and have left your ID there and only realize this when it's too late.
* Amtrak will not accept a frantically faxed photocopy from your stage manager.
* Nothing could close the Post Office. Not rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor - oh, wait, except snow.
* If you get up at 530 for the 7AM bus, all buses will be canceled.
* If you are planning to break up with someone, it's best to turn your phone off while discussing this with friends, lest you accidentally call her and leave this conversation in voicemail form ... on Valentine's Day.
* When life gives you bad apples, make this:

Ye Olde Ina Garten Apple Crisp. Perfect.
Resist the temptation to take it out early, and eat it with vanilla ice cream.

I know I say this all the freakin' time and it's probably why we don't have a book deal, but I am just consistently and joyfully amazed by the power of community and by the simple and significant role that food/cooking has within that. As you noted in the past post, there's something about transforming raw materials into delicious sustenance with your own two hands that gives one hope and perspective. Thanks to the little transient family in the actor house, what could have been a really bad day ended with a glowing table, good stories, and a delicious, sweet spiced apple crisp with orange zest and bubbling caramel edges. This morning, our Orestes pointed out a bag of apples he'd bought that were in danger of going south and asked "Do you think we could make something out of these?" With a big smile on my face, I set to peeling ... and healing. Happy Valentines Day after all.

The Boo

P.S. I have also now eaten fried Milky Way at this "Pittsburgh Style" (What??) dive bar. Not quite as healing.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Baked Pasta Kitchen Therapy

Dear Boo,

I've recently developed, entirely by accident, a sort of unlikely ritual. On my way home from work at my field placement, exhausted emotionally and physically by a day spent in a middle school, I stop at the farmers market or supermarket (or both), pick up ingredients for dinner, return home, and while listening to the Boyfriend's stories of the day, spend a good hour or two in the kitchen, making dinner. At first I thought I might really be losing it. Why on earth, after a day in which my every store of empathy, compassion, energy, sanity, and sense of order has been taxed, challenged, and employed in mysterious and beautiful ways, do I find myself compelled to navigate the treacherous and narrow aisles of a supermarket and stand in the kitchen and peel potatoes and carrots, or fry endless batches of eggplant, in preparation for a much too elaborate weekday dinner? Wouldn't it be so much healthier and more normal to come straight home, flop onto the couch, demand the Boyfriend mix me a drink, put my feet up and order some thai? I mean, don't get me wrong, we do that a fair amount too. But lately it seems, what my body and heart need is this decompression, a couple of hours to put between my day as a social work intern, adrift at times without a map, desperately using instinct and compassion to fight the rising tide of hopelessness that threatens at regular intervals to lap at my pant legs, and my time as me: the Girlfriend, me: the Friend, me: the Daughter, me: the Sister. When I realized the dinner phenomenon was not some psychotic break, but rather served a real purpose, I kind of wanted to hug myself for being so smart. Not my brain, mind you, but my survival instinct, which knew just what it needed to keep things balanced. There are times throughout the day when in the midst of a screaming pack of 11 year olds, or after a particularly difficult session I find my mind drifting briefly to what I want to make for dinner. I feared for a while that these fantasies which seemed to be so necessary to get me through the day meant I was in school for the wrong thing entirely. But I've realized they're actually just the part of me that knows sometimes its necessary to shut the brain off, take a breath, and think of something delicious. Like a good night's sleep, it's one of those seemingly selfish acts that actually--duh--makes it possible for me to be better to those around me.

But enough about me. The point of this really, is to tell you about two baked pastas I made during two nights of this new ritual. I got rather obsessed with the idea of making baked pasta after watching a Martha Stewart Every Day Food show on the subject. The first I tried was a vegetarian penne from a Mario Batali cookbook I have, and the second is a much simpler, more time-friendly soccer mom type recipe from the very episode of Every Day Food I watched. I liked both, though the second was so fast I had to make a time-consuming chopped salad to go with it. Both, though, are delicious.

Martha's baked orzo. Throw it all in a casserole and let the magic happen.

The Martha Stewart one is a baked Orzo with feta, dill, lemon and chicken, for a greek-style flavor. Speckled with dill, bright with lemon, and warm feta crumbled throughout, it inexplicably has a creamy texture that gives the whole thing an extra dose of comfort. Great with a nice vinegar-y cucumber salad or some other crunchy chopped veggie on the side.

Not the best shot, but what can you do.

Mario Batali's is a little fussy what with all the steps--with all due respect to Big Red, I'd change a few things next time--but so satisfying and hearty without the heavy, sick feeling you get from a lot of overly cheesy baked pastas. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course (I consumed some delicious cheesy mac at this bar last night which was well worth the bellyache).

Of course, after all the meticulous layering of eggplant and pasta and dotting of sauce and sprinkling of toasted breadcrumbs, I neglected to take a picture before digging in. But here you go: a delicious cross-section.

Served with a dollop of fresh ricotta drizzled with olive oil, and a plop of extra sauce to combat the slightly dry nature. I recommend doing both.

You can find the recipe for the orzo and chicken here. A great thing to make for a group of friends when you're short on time and money. The Mario Batali one is below, for when you need a little extra time in the kitchen, breathing, listening to a friendly voice, and packing away the day's events one at a time, with the flip of each slice of eggplant.


The Mouse

Mario Batali's Pasta Alla Norma, from Molto Italiano

2 Lbs small or med eggplant, ct into 1/4-in thick slices
6 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Lb penne
2 Cups Basic Tomato Sauce (recipe below, or use your own)
1 Cup toasted breadcrumbs
1/2 Cup freshly grated pecorino romano
10 fresh basil leaves, roughly torn
8 oz piece of ricotta salata, for grating

-Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 2 Tablespoons salt.
-Meanwhile, in a 10-12 in saute pan, heat 3 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Working in batches, saute the eggplant slices, seasoning them with salt and pepper, turning once, until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. (Note from the Mouse: I had to keep adding oil to the pan for each batch since the eggplant soaks up any liquid like a sponge. There's probably a culinarily-savvy way of avoiding this, but Mario doesn't offer any.)
-Preheat the oven to 375. Grease a 9x12 in baking dish with 1 tablespoon of olive oil.
-Cook the penne in the boiling water for 2 minutes short of the package instructions; it should still be quite firm. Drain and rinse under cold water until cool. Drain very well, place in a large bowl, and toss with 1 cup of the tomato sauce.
-Cover the bottom of the baking dish with 1/4 cup of the tomato sauce. Top with half the bread crumbs, then add half the pasta. Arrange half of the eggplant slices, overlapping them slightly, on top of the pasta. Dot about 1/4 cup of tomato sauce over the eggplant, and top with half of the pecorino and half of the basil. Top with the remaining pasta, arrange the remaining eggplant over the pasta, and dot with the remaining tomato sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining pecorino and basil, and then the remaining bread crumbs, and drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. (Note from the Mouse: Fussy, no? The layers are nice, but really it all comes out in the wash. You could just toss it all together and have a great end serving as long as you get the top right. Also, here's where I'd add more sauce next time. Baking a pasta dries things out, and this was a little naked for my taste. The sauce recipe makes extra, so just be generous.)
-Bake for 45 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving. Place a generous portion of pasta on each plate (oh, Big Red), grate ricotta salata over, and serve.

Mario's Basic Tomato Sauce
(makes 4 cups)

1/4 Cup extra virgin olive oil
1 spanish onion, diced in 1/4 in
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 Tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1/2 medium carrot, shredded
2 28-oz cans whole tomatoes

-In 3-qt saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and light golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot and cook until the carrot is quite soft, about 5 minutes.
-Add the tomatoes, with their juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer until as thick as hot cereal, about 30 minutes. Season with salt.