Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Eastern European Stuffed Cabbage

Before I traveled from Istanbul to Krakow through Romania and Ukraine last summer, I accumulated advice from the various Eastern Europeans in my life.  There are a lot.  And the thing about all of them is that they have a bipolar relationship with their homeland, and can swing dramatically from hatred to love and back gain in literally thirty seconds.  

"A dump.  They're all racists.  They hate everyone.  They can have it," to, "Lviv has so much history.  Too much to see in only three days, why aren't you staying longer?  You will fall in love with the chocolate and the coffee," and then, "why are you going there again?" in thirty seconds.  This was coming from my most reliable source (and he was right about all of it).  
Sighisoara, Romania
Stuffed Cabbage & Polenta
Lviv, Ukraine
Beet pierogies
I teach at a school with a huge Eastern European student body - Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Poles, Bulgarians, Lithuanians, Romanians, Serbs, Croats etc.  They all have something to say about the other.  But I love this bloc of people because they all have so much to say, and passionately.  I really enjoy teaching the history of Eastern Europe, and I ask my students to gather their parents' Cold War memories for a post-AP Euro exam project every year only to realize how lucky I am to teach a student body whose parents would have likely never sat comfortably in class next to each other thirty years ago.   It is certainly a region struggling with its recent past, but behind the concrete facades of communism are beautiful onion-domed churches and deliciously homey comfort food.

So at least one piece of advice for my trip went undisputed: try the stuffed cabbage.  It was so good that I had to try it in every city from Brasov to Sighisoara to Timisoara to Lviv to Krakow.   Along with borscht and/or pierogies.  The basic recipe did vary from region to region - served plain with a side of polenta and sour cream in Romania (and always with a super thick slice of bacon on top), and more like this tomato sauce recipe in Poland.

Ingredients (makes about 12 rolls, or 4 servings):
  • 1 head of savoy cabbage
  • 1 lb. extra lean ground beef (use whatever ground meat you want)
  • 1 cup cooked wheatberries (you could use rice instead)
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, finely diced
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tbsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. dill
  • 1/2 tbsp. pepper
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. dried parsley
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. thyme
  • 1 cup stock
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • 1 large can of whole, stewed tomatoes 
  • 1/2 cup tomato paste
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup white wine (optional)

Bring one large and one small pot of water to a boil and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  While you wait...

Prep your ingredients, including the dicing of vegetables and cooking of wheatberries (1:3 ratio wheatberries to water, about 15 minutes).  You can begin to cook the onion and garlic in a pan with 1 tbsp. of olive oil until it is brown.

Mix the ground beef with the egg, salt, pepper, dill, thyme, parsley, and nutmeg.  When the wheatberries are cooked and drained, let them cool a bit and add them to the meat mix.  Add this to the pan with the onions and garlic until fully cooked, adding the cup of stock to let simmer away for the last few minutes of cooking time.  Set aside to cool, but don't wash that pan.








To prep the cabbage, with a paring knife you need to cut out the core - score around the core at a 45 degree angle and rip it out.   Submerge the cabbage in the pot of boiling water (forcing it down) and cover for no more than 5 minutes.  When its done, peel away the leaves and lay across some towels to dry.
Add the diced tomato to the pan used for cooking the beef.  After a minute or two add the stewed tomatoes with their juice, breaking them apart with your hands.  Add the paste, balsamic, wine, sugar, and any other seasonings.  Let simmer while you stuff the cabbage leaves.
Place about 2-3 tbsp. of the stuffing in a leaf of cabbage, depending on its size.  Fold the end of the leaf in towards the stem, followed by tucking the sides in, and finishing by wrapping the strong stem around the bundle.  Don't over-stuff the leaves, as you want the end and stem to really overlap to create a closed package. 
Add a layer of sauce of the bottom of a dutch oven, and pack the stuffed cabbage in to fully cover the bottom.  Stack and remainders on top in a second layer, and cover with the remaining sauce.  Place in the oven for about 20-30 minutes.

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