Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Grandma Jenny's stuffed cabbage

My father's mother was a fabulous cook of the Litvak variety.   There are many recipes for stuffed cabbage (in our family, holishkes or gewicklete kroyt) out there.  What made hers so much better than the others?  I think there are three "secrets":  she put flanken and/or stew meat and soup bones in the pot, which added a lot of flavor and richness to the sauce;  she used sour salt (citric acid) and NEVER vinegar or lemon juice to make it sour since you want the pure sweet and sour flavor and not the taste of vinegar or lemon; and   she added prunes to the pot, which made the sauce richer and tastier.

My grandmother's cabbage recipe died with her.  Barbara, my cousin Lonnie's wife, sat with her one afternoon to try to learn how to make it, but didn't get too far.  My grandmother was not a great teacher, and the concept of measuring ingredients was as foreign to her as the Queen's English.   I have tinkered with the recipe over the years, and found a lot of help in Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking , particularly in getting the sweet/sour balance of the sauce right, but departed from it in significant ways, especially in the use of bones and prunes.  Making this is a labor of love, with the accent on both labor and love, but well worth the effort. 

Stuffed Cabbage

  • 2 to 2 1/2 pounds ground beef (not too lean -- chuck works well)
  • 1/2 cup rice, boiled for 3 minutes (I like short grain pudding or risotto rice, but Carolina will work as well;  just avoid fragrant rices like jasmine or basmati)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs (challah crumbs from last week's bread are best, but panko or any old breadcrumbs will suffice)
  • 2 onions, coarsely grated
  • Salt and pepper (depending on the quantity of meat and whether it is kosher, 2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon of salt and about 40 grinds of a pepper mill;  use less if you are unsure and test as below)
  • 28 ounce can tomato puree
  • 1 teaspoon sour salt 
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup to 1 cup water or stock
For assembling the dish
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 heads of cabbage (you should be safe with one 4-5 pounder and one 3 pounder)
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 6 pieces flanken, about 2 pounds -OR- 1 to 1 1/2 pounds meaty soup bones and 1-2 pounds of stewing beef
  • 1 pound pitted prunes

  1. Soften the cabbage leaves by your favorite method (either freezing and defrosting, blanching, or microwaving -- all are described following the recipe). I prefer freezing and defrosting.  Since you never know exactly how many usable leaves a cabbage will yield, I think it is a good idea to have two on hand.  You don't want to be caught short.
  2. Set aside the larger cabbage leaves for stuffing, and the center of the cabbage and smaller leaves for the pot. You should have between 15-20 large leaves.
  3. To make the filling, put the beef in a very large bowl, and make a hollow in the middle of it.  Break the eggs into the hollow and beat.  Add the remaining ingredients.  I prefer the full amount of salt and pepper, but you might want to cut down.  Mix well with your hands and set aside.  If you do not trust your instincts on seasoning, take a small piece and fry it quickly in a nonstick skillet and taste.  Adjust salt and pepper accordingly.
  4. Combine the ingredients for the sauce and set aside.
  5. Take a large, heavy ovenproof 6 to 8 quart casserole and oil it with the vegetable oil. 
  6. Shred the reserved inner leaves of the cabbage as well as any torn leaves.
  7. Set the shredded cabbage, chopped onions, prunes and meat on a cutting board in separate piles.
  8. Preheat your oven to 275 degrees.
  9. Put about 1/3 of the shredded cabbage and chopped onions in the bottom of the casserole.  Arrange 3 pieces of flanken (or the soup bones) on the bottom.
  10. Stuff the cabbage leaves, starting with the largest leaves.  Lay a leaf on a cutting board with the top closest to you and the rib away from you.  If the rib is still very tough, cut it out.  (I find that this is less likely to happen with frozen defrosted leaves.) Take a small handful of beef and form it into a meat ingot of about 2 inches by 1 inch by 3/4 inch. Place it near the top of the cabbage leaf about 1inch from the end.  Fold the end of the cabbage over the ingot, and then fold over the two sides.  Roll the leaf up.  You should have a fairly compact roll. 
  11. As each roll is done, place it in the pot to make one layer.  You will probably have about 8 rolls.  As the leaves get smaller, you will use somewhat less meat for each.
  12. Scatter 1/2 of the prunes on top, and then top with 1/3 of the cabbage and chopped onions.  Put the remaining flanken or stew meat on top, and then arrange the remaining rolls on top.  If you have any meat filling left, you can either make them into meatballs and add them to the pot if there is room (they benefit from a quick browning first) or make them into old-fashioned hamburgers which are best pan-fried and served well-done. 
  13. Top with the remaining prunes, cabbage and onions.
  14. Pour the sauce ingredients over the stuffed cabbage.  It should come nearly to the top.  If not, add some water.
  15. Place a  lightly oiled heatproof plate slightly smaller than the diameter of the pot over the cabbage.  This will weigh down the rolls slightly and improve their texture. 
  16. Bring the pot slowly to the boil, cover, and then transfer to the oven.  If your pot is very full, put a pan that is larger than the casserole on a lower shelf in the oven.  Put some cold water in the pan.  This will catch boilovers and prevent you oven from smoking up and your fire alarm from going off. 
  17. Cook for 3 hours. 
  18. Take it out and cool off before refrigerating.
  19. Reheat in the oven for a long time before serving 8 as a main course and 12-15 as an appetizer.  My grandmother would usually serve it with mashed potatoes or rice, but I think that all it needs is some challah to soak up the juices. 
Preparing the cabbage:  Although it takes planning, I find that freezing and defrosting the cabbage works best.  Start by removing the outer leaves of the cabbage.  I have read that the heads are so tight that this will remove any dirt, and that you actually add more contaminants by rinsing it with tap water at this point.  Who knows?  Core the cabbages carefully (you don't want to mess up too many leaves) and place in the freezer.  This takes up a lot of room, so be prepared.  Freeze for about 2 days, and then defrost in your refrigerator for about two days before proceeding with the recipe.  Alternatively, place one cored cabbage in a large pot, add boiling water, and after 5 minutes remove it and peel off those leaves which you can.  Replace the cabbage in the pot and continue until the leaves are too small to stuff.  You an also microwave the cabbage in a large microwave-safe dish for about 8 minutes, remove, peel off the leaves, and then return and zap some more.  I think that you can see why I prefer the freezing method, even if it takes up a lot of valuable freezer real estate and is a bit mafia-ish, sort of like having a head in your freezer. 

The meat:  To me, this is the key to the dish.  In addition to enhancing the flavor and texture, you have a good amount of meat that you can serve to those who claim not to like cabbage.  My grandmother would always use flanken but this was before chefs had discovered short ribs and it was considered a budget cut.  I find that meaty soup bones sold but kosher butchers are often bony flanken at less than half the price, and I use that for the bone layer.  For the meat layer, I would recommend chuck or kalechal, or even brisket if you can find it at a good price.

Sauce variations: I prefer scant, thicker sauce.  If you prefer a thinner one, substitute about 1 quart tomato juice for the puree and water.  You can use raisins if you must, but you will be missing out on the true experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment