Of Cabbages and Kings
Courtesy of Ronnie Fein
Five Variations on the Classic Jewish Dish
Five Variations on the Classic Jewish Dish
It is tradition to eat stuffed foods on Sukkot, as a way of saying we are grateful for all we have, for our personal bounty, and the bounty of the land. We are stuffed, as it were!
Among the classics is the beloved Ashkenazi Stuffed Cabbage. But everyone has a different way to make this dish. Like so many other traditional Jewish foods, the recipes have evolved. No longer “pure” Polish or “classic” Russian, they have become more melting-pot sort of recipes, each of us adding a different ingredient here, a new technique there, to make the dish unique.
My own recipe came about after years of experimentation because my husband and sons-in-law didn’t care for my grandma’s version, which were actually stuffed grape leaves in a lemony sauce. I learned to cook a proper – let’s say mixed Eastern European version – large rolls of cabbage, sweet/sour tomato-ey sauce, with raisins.
Several of my food-biz colleagues told me they’ve also experimented, tinkering with old family recipes. Years ago for example, Alison Nathan, (whose husband Jeff is a cookbook author and chef-owner of two restaurants, including Abigael's on Broadway), added two new ingredients to her mother’s traditional Austrian style stuffed cabbage recipe. Now “there’s just something about those cranberries and the maple syrup that make it more of an American version,” she said.
There’s a similar story in food writer and cookbook author Faye Levy’s life. Her go-to recipe for the holidays comes from her husband’s family. Her mother-in-law was from Yemen, where Ashkenazi food isn’t common, but, Faye says, “she lived in Israel where stuffed cabbage is very popular, so she decided to make it using Yemenite spices.” Faye’s is a culturally-blended recipe, with an intriguing cumin-turmeric spiced filling and brothy sauce.
I figured that Naomi Nachman, who is a personal chef, blogger, and radio personality, would know a thing or two about stuffed cabbage. She hails from Australia and now lives in the States but her family originated in Poland. When it comes to stuffed cabbage, her grandma’s once-Polish recipe now includes a little ketchup and a little panko – things bubbe never heard of. In addition, she says, the most important extra in her recipe these days is marrow bones or some other fatty meat. She adds, “my friend’s mother-in-law once told me to use the fat trimmed off cooked corned beef.” Either way the meaty element makes the sauce lusciously rich and thick.
Of course what we think of as classic stuffed cabbage didn’t start out the way grandma made them either. Cabbage has been common in Europe for thousands of years, but during the middle ages cooks also wrapped meat or grains and vegetables with other leafy green vegetables such as chard and the kind of grape leaves my grandma used. This little known fact inspired blogger Liz Rueven, who chanced upon some large green Brussels sprouts leaves at a local farmer’s market one day and adapted her recipe for stuffed “cabbage” accordingly. Brussels sprouts leaves “are softer than cabbage,” she says, “so it really saves a lot of time and effort. Unlike with cabbage, you don’t have to poach or freeze them to get the leaves ready for filling.”
In order to make stuffed cabbage kosher for Passover and suitable for guests who require gluten-free food, blogger and cookbook author Amy Kritzer tweaked her family recipe this way – she binds the meat with quinoa rather than breadcrumbs or matzo meal. But she also has done something entirely transformative with her recipe -- she turned it into soup! It’s a remarkable notion: place all the classic stuffed cabbage ingredients into a pot and add some broth. Cook for a while and it’s done. No boiling or freezing the cabbage, no rolling, no baking. Much more fuss free, but it still tastes like stuffed cabbage. Clever, huh?
So, grandma’s recipe? Still good, always welcome. A good family recipe is always a keeper. But I bet she also loves the new interpretations. Frankly, I think my grandma smiling.
Ronnie Fein is a cookbook author, food writer and cooking teacher in Stamford. She is the author of The Modern Kosher Kitchen and Hip Kosher. Visit her food blog, Kitchen Vignettes, at www.ronniefein.com, friend on Facebook at RonnieVailFein, Twitter at @RonnieVFein, Instagram at RonnieVFein