Töltött Káposzta (Stuffed Cabbage)
Ivonne from Cream Puffs in Venice and Orchidea from Viaggi & Sapori are hosting a one-time event called Dishes of Comfort. They ask us to write about something we consider comfort food, one of the special dishes that meant a lot to us when we were young.
My grandmother has a fairly limited culinary repertoire. She makes a set of Hungarian dishes, and little else. But what she does, she does well, and this is the food I grew up on. Ima (we call our grandmother by the Hebrew word for mother) lives less than a mile away from the house where I grew up, and she was our default babysitter when my brothers and I were kids. Her food is comfort food for me, and stuffed cabbage is what she has made the most of over the years.
When I spent a summer in Israel during high school, I got to visit a set of our cousins that I had never met before. When I arrived, it turned out that Ima had called up her cousin Hugocs, who lives in Netanya, Israel, to tell her to make stuffed cabbage for me because she knows how much I like it. The stuffed cabbage Hugocs made for me in Netanya tasted just like the stuffed cabbage Ima has always made for me in Brooklyn, and eating it was like coming home.
As my father pointed out, they probably learned how to make stuffed cabbage at the knee of the same old woman back in the old country. They grew up together in the same little village (Tarpa) in Hungary, after all.
When I went to Hungary last August, I found that the food more and more closely resembled my grandmother’s cooking as I traveled north to Tarpa. Down in Pécs and Szeged, I found no stuffed cabbage at all. In Debrecen, the stuffed cabbage was mysteriously lacking in tomato paste, but was otherwise very similar. Finally, when we got to Tarpa, Ima’s friend Szaz Anna made us stuffed cabbage that was very delicious and very similar to Ima’s, except that she used lecso instead of tomato paste, and it was a bit spicier than Ima’s version. Anna gave me her recipe, but I prefer Ima’s stuffed cabbage, and it is my take on Ima’s recipe that I am sharing with you here.
To this day, when I call my grandmother to see how she’s doing, she usually tells me, “I made some stuffed cabbage if you want to come pick it up. It is too much for me to eat, you have to come take it. I made it for you.”
I called her before I started to steam the cabbage myself, even though I wrote down her recipe a while back. I think she enjoyed the call, though, and the reminder that there are still things she does far better than I. I couldn’t possibly rely on just my notes when trying to make stuffed cabbage on my own for the very first time, after all.
Well, in the great tradition of my maternal ancestors, I have made far too much stuffed cabbage. It is here if you want to come pick it up.
Töltött Káposzta (Stuffed Cabbage)
For the filling
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. rice, rinsed
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp édes paprika
A little olive oil, just to help bind it together
Salt and black pepper to taste
For the sauce
1 15 oz. jar sauerkraut
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp édes paprika
1 tbsp granulated sugar
Salt to taste
2 6 oz. cans tomato paste
Take off the most wretched outer leaves of the cabbage, and rinse the whole thing off. Steam the cabbage for 5-10 minutes, or until the leaves are pliable enough to bend easily. I find that after removing all the pliable leaves I can, I end up having to re-steam the still hard inner leaves. If I steam it so long that even they are pliable from the start, the outer leaves are easier to accidentally rip.
Peel off the leaves. Hold each leaf rib-side up, and pare the thick rib down to get rid of that tough vein and make it about as flat as the rest of the leaf.
Prepare the filling by mixing all the filling ingredients together by hand. The rice:meat ratio varies, though I have suggested using a 1:2 ratio here. Ima initially told me to use 1 part rice to 1 1/2 parts meat by weight, but when I tried it that way, there was way more rice than I’m used to when she cooks it. It may be that the type of rice used affects this – I don’t know what sort of rice Ima uses (Uncle Ben’s would be my guess), but I use basmati. Szaz Anna also uses 1 part rice to 1 1/2 parts meat by weight.
When I called Ima to ask her to clear this up for me, she explained that it is really based on what you can afford – if you can afford more meat, use less rice. If you want to stretch the meat further, use more rice. The rice also serves the purpose of keeping the meat from binding into nothing more than a tough patty; like the bread in meatballs, the rice here keeps the meat tender and good.
To fill each cabbage leaf, set the leaf on the table rib-side down, so that it naturally curves into a sort of cup waiting to be filled. Roll small handfulls of meat into oblong patties that fit the size of the leaves, and place the filling on the cabbage leaf, near the bottom of the leaf. Fold the sides of the leaf over the filling, and roll the cabbage around the meat, being sure to tuck the bottom end of the rib around the filling to keep it all snugly wrapped.
Cut the center out of the cabbage that remains, and discard. Chop up the rest of the cabbage into small pieces.
To fill the pot, start with a layer of that chopped up cabbage mixed with sauerkraut. Then place the stuffed cabbage in a flat layer on top of that, starting by lining them up around the circumference of pot and then filling in the middle. Add another layer of chopped cabbage and sauerkraut on top of that, then another layer of stuffed cabbage. Keep going like this until you run out of stuffed cabbage, and add a final layer of chopped cabbage and sauerkraut on top. Add water to just cover the contents of the pot.
Bring it to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes.
A few minutes before your kitchen timer goes off, make a roux by browning the flour in a bit of oil in a separate pan. Stir in the paprika, then remove from heat. Add the sugar, salt, and tomato paste, and mix well. Ladle some of the water out of the cooking cabbage pot and mix in with the paste, just to thin it out. Add the thinned paste back into the pot with the cabbage, and carefully stir it in to dissolve it in the water. My grandmother instructed me to the shake the pot to get the paste mixed in, but my pot was too full for me to risk that.
Simmer for another 10-20 minutes, or until done.