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.   

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