Stuffed Cabbage: A Comfort Food for All Ages
by Eileen Lavine
What you call it usually depends on where your grandmother came from. Mine, from German-speaking Bohemia, called it gefultes kraut. To my mother-in-law, a Romanian immigrant, it was holishkes. Others call it praches, prahkes or galuptzi. (The last stems from Slavic variants for dove, probably because the finished dish resembled little birds on a plate.) It’s golub in Russian, golab in Polish and holub in Ukrainian, which led to golomkes, goluptshes and holeptshes. In Turkey, the delicacy is known by more literal names such as sarma for “to wrap” or dolma for “stuffed.” It’s kohlroulade in Austria; toltott kaoszta in Hungary; malfoof in the Middle East and on and on. But today in America, it is just stuffed cabbage, the exemplary comfort food. The fare is served on the fall holiday of Sukkot to symbolize a bountiful harvest, and is a particular favorite on Simchat Torah because two small stuffed cabbage rolls placed side by side resemble Torah scrolls. But it can be eaten any time, as a popular appetizer or a main course, served in Jewish delis and at home.
Cabbage entered Jewish cooking some 2,000 years ago, according to Gil Marks, author of the 2010 Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. Although not mentioned in the Bible, it is cited in the Talmud, he says, where the rabbis praise the “cabbage for sustenance.” Though no one knows where the tradition of filling leaves with other foods originated, it shows up in cultures around the globe stretching from Europe and the Middle East to the jungles of the Amazon.
Recipes are handed down in families amid continual arguments about sweet-and-sour versus tomato sauce, cooked or raw rice, green cabbage or savoy, oven-baked or simmered. In fact, Joan Nathan, Jewish culinary history maven, claims that “there are probably as many different stuffed cabbage recipes as there are towns in Central and East Europe.” Stop by Chowhound, the popular online food discussion board, and you’ll discover dozens of stories submitted by individuals from all over the world about their family recipes. (There’s even a small Transylvanian town, Praid, where the intense rivalry between Hungarian and Romanian recipes led to a “cabbage war” that inspired an annual International Stuffed Cabbage Festival.)
When meat was scarce or too costly, Jewish cooks used rice, bread or barley to stretch the filling. In our time of plenty, the filling is mostly ground beef (or chopmeat, as some grandmothers have called it), with just a small amount of rice. Ashkenazi Jews make it with uncooked meat, rice and grated onions with eggs as binding. Hungarians add sweet paprika, Romanians lots of garlic, Syrians cinnamon, Persians dill. Other common ingredients include salt, pepper, minced garlic or garlic powder, one to three eggs, onions (raw chopped or grated or sautéed in olive oil) and catsup (anywhere from ¼ to ¾ cup). Mark Bittman of The New York Times thinks the typical ingredients are too sweet and don’t balance the sourness, and so in an unusual New World version, he uses ground lamb with grated carrots and parsnips in his stuffing, and spikes a classic tomato sauce with crushed red pepper. “The concept [of stuffed cabbage] is fantastic,” he says. “Just skip the ketchup and vinegar.”
The range of sauces expanded dramatically in the 19th century when tomatoes became more common; canned tomatoes and tomato sauce were added as thickeners instead of browned flour. Hungarians, Romanians and northern Poles favor a savory sauce, while Jews from Galicia and Ukraine prefer a sweet-and-sour one, with lemon juice, brown sugar and even raisins. A novel addition by Joan Nathan includes two cans of concentrated lemonade with a tablespoon of brown sugar for the sweet-and-sour flavor. Sephardis prefer a tart tomato sauce with lemon juice and vinegar or sour salt (citric acid), which holds the flavor during the long cooking time. And the Second Avenue Deli in New York City adds chopped orange and lemon, peels included, to its sauce.
Cooking variations also apply to the cabbage wrap. The goal is to end up with soft and tender leaves that can be rolled easily. Most recipes call for cutting out the core of the cabbage, removing any tough outer leaves, placing the head in a pot filled with boiling water to cook anywhere from three to ten minutes and then cooling and peeling off the leaves. Or individual leaves can be removed from the cabbage and plunged separately into boiling water for a few minutes. Other cooks avoid boiling altogether by freezing the head of cabbage for a day or two, then defrosting it the night before filling and cooking.
What happens next is again a source of heated culinary exchange. All agree that one or two tablespoons of the filling should be placed on each cabbage leaf, with the ends folded toward the center, then rolled up to firmly enclose the filling. Most commonly, the rolls are placed in a large casserole, smothered in sauce and baked covered for one-and-a-half to two hours, then uncovered and baked another half-hour until the sauce thickens and the cabbage rolls are lightly browned. But some cooks insist that stuffed cabbage should not be baked: They bring the rolls in the sauce to a boil in a covered pot on the stove, simmer for an hour or two, basting occasionally. Fortunately most everyone agrees it’s best not to serve stuffed cabbage right away—it always tastes better the next day!