Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sweet and sour

“Joowley.  Yur Grand Muthah cawled.  Cawl her back.”, read the note from my college roommate.  

I laughed while imagining her initial shock at hearing my Nana’s voice for the first time, all Brooklyn and all business. It was fall and I knew she was calling for my annual re-instruction on how to make her famous stuffed cabbage, and g-d help the poor soul who did not expedite the message to call back.  A powerful bleached blond beehive of a woman, my grandmother was part of the great Brooklyn-Florida exodus of the seventies. Most of our relationship was spent on the phone, and much of that was kitchen talk.  In my mind, I can still hear her lessons. 

“Make sure you use brown sugar”, and of course “I don’t like raisins in it. Feh.”  

Every year she would urgently remind me to be to be careful with the leaves. Always proprietary, she was annoyed but I think secretly proud when I updated her recipe and incorporated the 2nd Avenue Deli’s method for prepping them.  She would have been even prouder this year when I did the same with Julia Child's method.

My Nana was an exceptional cook and hostess.  But she was not an easy person.  She could be exceptionally warm and loving one moment, and then unbelievably cruel and cold the next. My memories of her are a confluence of this dichotomy, and I have spent many years reconciling them. Nana lived her life as she made her stuffed cabbage, sweet and sour. I miss her all the time, but never so much as when I catch a whiff of those holishkes every Rosh Hashanah.  Below is her recipe, which is strange for me to see on paper.  Prior to this post, I only had it in my memory and heart.  Enjoy every bite.


Stuffed cabbages

1 large head of green cabbage, cored (savoy cabbage as seen here is best - ask for it at the grocer)

1 ½ lb ground beef

2/3 cup of rice (you can use any white rice – I like medium grain)

2 eggs, beaten

1 tsp salt

½ tsp pepper



30 oz (2 cans) tomato sauce

1 tbsp lemon zest (finely grated)

3/4 cup of lemon juice, freshly squeezed

1 1/2 cups light brown sugar

6 tbsp white or cider vinegar

1 1/2 cups finely chopped apples

1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion

1 1/2 cups of tomatoes, peeled and seeded


  1. Fill a large stockpot with 2/3 full with water and bring to boil.  
  2. For savoy cabbagePeel the cabbage leaves off one by one and put them aside.  When water is boiling, place 4 - 6 leaves at a time in the pot and blanch for 3 -4 minutes.  Remove and lay them on a tea towel to dry and cool.  Repeat until all leaves are cooked. Cut and discard the thick ends/spines.
  3. For all other cabbage types: Stick a long fork (one with a rosewood or like handle) into the cabbage and gently place in water. When leaves will become soft and start to fall off,  carefully remove them one at a time and place in a large, flat colander.  Return cabbage to water and repeat until they are all done. Place the colander in the sink and then pour the water from the pot over them.  Gently spray the leaves with cool water. Cut and discard the thick ends/spines.
  4. In a large bowl, combine chopped meat, rice, eggs, salt, and pepper. Finely chop remaining cabbage leaves and add to mix.  
  5. Lay a leaf out carefully and place a 1 inch oval ball of the meat mixture at the top. Roll top of leaf over meat, and about halfway through, tuck in both sides of the leaf.  Continue rolling until you have a small, tight package.  Do this for remaining leaves/meat mixture.  If you have any remaining meat mixture, make small meatballs and set aside. 
  6. Begin layering; I use a 7 quart Dutch oven which generally yields three layers. Add 10 oz tomato sauce, a pinch of lemon zest, ¼ cup lemon juice, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 2 tbsp vinegar, 1/2 cup apples, 1/2 cup onion, 1/2 cup of tomatoes, and 1/3 of the chopped cabbage or remaining meatballs.  Place stuffed cabbages on top of this but do not crowd them.  Repeat until you have three layers. 
  7. Add water until just filled to the top of the last layer.  Place on stovetop and bring to boil.  Lower heat, cover, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.  Correct sauce with salt and pepper as you please.
  8. Plate, and serve with egg noodles or boiled potatoes,


Note: Stuffed cabbage ages well and in my experience tastes better if it has a chance to sit longer, making it the perfect make-ahead meal.  If possible, leave it in the fridge for at least 24 hours before serving.  To reheat, warm in oven using shallow aluminum trays covered with foil.   

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rosh Hashanah with Julia

I love to host the holidays.  Nothing gives me more pleasure than planning, marketing, preparing, and entertaining for these special times, and I have established a tradition of going a little over the top for the occasion. 

I also loved the books Julie and Julia as well as My Life in France.  Both inspired me to swipe my mom's old copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and happily start practicing.  That was 2 or 3 years ago, and my appetite was rewet when I heard the film was coming out this summer.  It inspired me to begin planning Le Marais, or an all Julia Child tribute to Rosh Hashanah.  

In many ways the planning was consistent with other themes in my life.  For example, we live in a very small place, so much so that for every item we bring in, another needs to move out. It's a real house of cards and sometimes frustrates me to no end.  But there is a wonderful economy that comes from living like this.  We are bound by our limitations, and so when we go furniture shopping, we have to look high and low for something sized within reach.  I can't just purchase that cute little serving dish that caught my eye because there is no where to put it and I am not ready to sacrifice what I already have.  It seems that having fewer options leads to better choices, as well as less wasted time spent searching.  The entire Le Marais exercise echoed this bit of wisdom.

So now that you know I like to be challenged by boundaries, here were my self imposed rules:
  1. We don't keep kosher Per Se, but we do try to keep a Jewish home.  I do not mix milk with meat, nor do I cook seafood or pork in my home.  
  2. The main dish would be meat and needed to have apples listed in the ingredients. 
  3. There had to be enough food for at least 6 - 8 people, with room for an additional 2 if necessary.
  4. There had to be a kid friendly option on the table.
  5. At least one baked desert was required, because I am a masochist mental case.
  6. All food had to be based on Julia Child's recipes.
Now, all of those rules are daunting to even the most fearless cook, but by far the most challenging was number one.  JC is all about dairy.  To wit, I usually make challah bread once a week using a stand by recipe that has worked for years.  Like most challah recipes, it has only parve (not dairy, not meat) ingredients like eggs, oil, and flour.  Julia Child has a lovely challah recipe from in Baking with Julia, but it calls for unsalted butter, more unsalted butter, whole milk, and cream.  'Can't she just call it a brioche and a ^&$&% day', I muttered under my breath as I tried to reconcile with my rules.  I reread the recipe, and while I could not use it verbatim, I was able to glean from her Method and improve the challah, especially by double egg washing the loaves while baking.   And so I learned how to make a better bread, as well as manage the rules of the game.

After the bread planning, I decided to start by searching for a main dish recipe that met my requirements, knowing I would pair everything else accordingly.  Rule 1 eliminated more than 90% of the recipes in Mastering The Art of French Cooking (MtAoFC) volumes I and II.  Rule 2 left me with a single wonderful option from MtAoFC vol I (p 275), Caneton Roti a l'Alsacienne or Roast Duck with sausage and apple stuffing. I had made the master recipe before with great success, but the apple and sausage stuffing were just over the top.  I used a chicken and apple sausage that beautifully complimented the apples, sage, cognac, and port.  Two ducks took under two hours, made a wonderful main dish, and my house smell like heaven on earth. 

Once I had nailed down the main event, I tackled the next challenge...stuffed cabbage.  Now stuffed cabbage is a Rosh Hashanah tradition that goes back to my grand-mother Esther Steinberg-Levy, who handed me her recipe when I was in high school and went to her grave trying to help me get it right.  She made it sweet and sour with apples and lemons, and it is a family favorite.  Julia Child has an eight page recipe for Chou Farci in MtAoFC vol II (p 379), complete with sausage and ham for the stuffing and several methods.  The gist of the primary approach is to dismember an entire cabbage, reconstruct it in a pan with layers of stuffing, and present it 'whole' for family and friends.  Unfortunately, this requires the dish to be served as soon as it is cooked, eliminating the convenience of cooking the cabbage in advance.  I get crazy right an hour or two before the guests arrive; the last thing I needed is some last minute cabbage debacle to unhinge me completely.  Therefore I stuck to Nana's recipe, but used Julia's alternative method.  First of all, I am always getting a savoy cabbage from now on..what a difference. Never again will I boil a whole head of domestic cabbage and burn my first three layers of skin while peeling it.  Also, her wrapping technique which is beautifully illustrated, made for a much tighter roll.  Maybe next year I will try the mold. 

To satisfy rule four, there was apple and honey on the table, as well as her Risotto/Pilaf/Pilau recipe (MtAoFC vol I, p 532). Substituting oil for butter did not detract from the wonderful taste, and to boot I molded it into a rice ring per her suggestion.  To serve, I placed the stuffing from the duck on the center and garnished with parsley - fabulous, and my daughter ate it with gusto.  

Petites Oignons Aigre-Doux/Sweet and Sour Onions Braised with Raisins from MtAoFC vol II (p 410) paired beautifully with the duck and met my unspoken rule of making little pearl onions that my husband loves so much.  The flavor of the vegetable is enhanced by dry mustard, white wine vinegar, tomato, thyme, and bay leaf.  And I knocked out rule 5 with a gem from MtAoFC vol I (p 671), Gateau a l'Orange/Orange Sponge Cake.  A very simple dessert that has NO DAIRY whatsoever - no substitutions required.  I topped it with JC's apricot glaze, and then rounded it out with almond bits on the side.  I could have put it in a box and sold it at Carlo's Bakery for twenty bucks.  

It was a wonderful dinner, with great food and company.  Everyone, including me, was impressed with the fare.  At one point though, one of my guests remarked about how time consuming it was to cook JC's recipes, how complicated they were.  Hilda is my sister in law's grand-mother, a shrewd woman with a terrific sense of humor.  We love having her in the family, and she always brings something to the table.  When she heard about the menu she told us a story about her JC experience.  

"I remember it took all day to make those recipes." she told us in her thick Germanic accent, "When it was done, it was delicious.  And I thought 'Never again'! " 

This is one of the few times where Hilda and I will disagree; while it was time consuming, I cooked 5 recipes in a single day and everything came out wonderfully.  This is in part attributable to my wonderful husband, a quiet hero who who took charge of cleaning and watching the kids while I focussed on the food.  But help aside, I was able to do a lot in a limited period of time, and for that I thank the author. I love the simplicity of Julia Child, especially compared to her more contemporary peers.  There are no excessive ingredients or mysterious techniques; everything is laid out in a way so that the cook feels confident, like Julia is rooting for you.  I understand why Julie Powell was so taken by her, and how the entire world loved her so very much.  My guests should expect more events like this, and I suspect that they will happily come back for more. Next time I will wear my pearls.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shopping for the fishes

Funny for a town where so many sleep with the fishes, so few can successfully shop for them.

Hoboken, NJ is a place where you can order sushi delivery at 2 in the morning, but finding a fresh tuna steak is as rare as an uncorrupted Hudson county official.  All the fishmongers went out years ago.  Every once in a while I will walk past an oceanic themed building, begin to get excited, and then realize it is relic of days gone by, an empty storefront (or a nail place that never redecorated). We are across the river from one of the largest fresh fish markets in the world, but to the untrained eye seemed doomed to Mrs. Paul's. I don't think this dilemma is unique to my little town. Much of America resides inland, and away from large lakes, rivers, and other sources for fresh fish.  But I do think it is extraordinary that we are right on the Atlantic Ocean and cannot muster a storefront for her harvests.   

Subsequently, we have adjusted like most of the country and are therefore subject to the tricky business of frozen fresh fish. To clarify, unless it just came in from a local fishing boat, most "fresh" fish is frozen.  The best is frozen right on the fishing boats, and then defrosted only once it hits the stores.  After that quality often goes downhill based on how frequently it is defrosted and then refrozen. There are a few telltale signs such as how clear the eyes are, how shiny the scales seem, and the redness of the gills.  But most of us are not purchasing whole fish these days - it's a lot of work to de-bone and gut them, and honestly unless it is a holiday or the Mayor is coming for dinner (esp Mayor Dawn Zimmer), who wants to make the time? Most folks are buying fillets and steaks, and in this case only the nose knows. My rule is if it smells like the ocean, it's worthwhile.  If it smells like rotten fish, then it is.  Trust your instincts. 

Over the years I have found a few worthwhile options for fish in and around town, as well as some that should just be thrown back.  They include the following:

  • Sobseys (Hoboken): Old school charm with a small selection, great quality, and high prices.  It is not my first stop for fish, but I do pick some up occasionally when I am buying their terrific produce.  
  • Garden of Eden (Hoboken): GoE has a nice little counter in the back of the store.  The fish seems fresh frozen, and they have a nice selection.  Be prepared to pay a premium for these amenities. 
  • A&P (Hoboken): I have to give them credit for hosting one of the few manned fish counters in the city.  The people who work there are helpful and seem nice, which is why I get so frustrated with their products.  Everything I have bought there has seemed of a lower quality than my other haunts. I have had inconsistent luck with their salmon, but other than that cannot recommend them.  On a catty note, someone get some Glade from aisle 5 please. 
  • Whole Foods (Edgewater): A grand fish counter of yesteryear awaits you.  There are several staff members who are generally helpful, although they don't seem to do well with custom orders.  Good selection and fairly pricey, which is consistent with the rest of the store.  I like that you can find whole fish here, as well as many eco-friendly options not available at all stores.
  • Trader Joe's (Edgewater): TJ's does not have a manned counter but they do have a wonderful fresh frozen fish selection.  The fish comes right from the boat and is defrosted for the first time when you slap it on your counter.  I have had very good luck with everything I have bought, including wild salmon, tuna, and sole. Best of all is the price, which is significantly less than the competition.  I always have some of their fish in my freezer for week-night meals. 

Where do you buy your fish and why?  Comment below and tell me about it.