Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sarma is Slavic for Love, Sort of

The first thing I thought when I saw this site was up as a finalist in the Weblog awards (please vote) was “Is this some kind of mistake?!” Then, I freaked out when I read the other finalists. I still feel like the indie film director at the Oscars tugging at the hem of my off-the-rack dress while I hear the whole crowd of beautiful people muttering “What was that film? Did you see that?”

The only comforting thought in my head is "Thank God I am not dressed in a giant, dead swan outfit."

Then, the dust settled a bit, and I remembered with panic, “Oh man, my newest recipe to post is cabbage rolls.” Not that there is anything wrong with Slavic comfort food. I grew up on the stuff. When the ginormous head of cabbage arrived in the CSA bag and the freezer is full of local, grassfed beef, I knew what to cook. I just didn’t know all of you would be coming for dinner.

Neither of my grandmothers were, as they say, great cooks. That stereotype is a myth in my family tree. But there was one thing my favorite grandmother could do better than anyone else: make the most out of a cheap piece of meat. Much of this skill came from being one of nine children in the house of a young widow. The rest of it surely came from having to leave school in the eighth grade and go work at a meat packing plant.

I can still hear her knife singing against the steel, flashing back and forth so fast it would make your head spin. She could put an edge on even the cheapest hunk of steel, too. When butchering time came for one of my great uncle’s beef, she would be standing at the side of the butcher making sure all the good cuts were there. At five-two, she was hardly a menacing presence, but, oh, mess with her family and look out.

She loved fiercely and completely, worked hard, survived much including the Depression, nearly dying in childbirth, and working and raising a child alone while her husband was at war. She knew loss and hard times, but she was the happiest person you could meet. Always singing as she worked, a flurry of perpetual motion and laughter.

To my grandmother, like so many who lived through the Great Depression, food was love. I remember us being kids at the table, giggling as she asked our father, “Want some ice cream, Joey?” We were never sure which was funnier, hearing our father called the “Joey” pet name or the heaping amount of ice cream she’d put in the bowl.

Next to her legendary root beer floats, also filled to the brim with ice cream, my favorite dish of hers was cabbage rolls. There is no recipe written and passed down. I pretty much had to do this one from research and memory. More than any other specific memory, my grandmother Ruby (Rubalinska) reminds me of being loved unconditionally and selflessly.

Holupki (Russian) or Sarma (Serbian) Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Meat filling:
1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
1 onion chopped
1-1/2 cups cooked white rice
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 egg
1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 tsp. kosher salt

1 very large head of napa cabbage, or two medium ones, rinsed, hard white stem cut off, and leaves pulled off whole

2-24 oz. can/box/preserved chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup sugar
1 tbs. balsamic vinegar
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper
salt and pepper to taste

Prepare the sauce by pretty much putting all of the ingredients into a large sauce pan and simmering while you do the other steps. The vinegar-sugar combination is a nice sweet-tart foil to the cabbage flavor.

Cook the rice (1/2 cup dried rice to 1 cup water). Saute the onion in a bit of olive oil until just golden. Cool a bit. Combine all the filling ingredients in a large bowl.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Steam the cabbage leaves for about 5-10 minutes until pliable. Spray a 9x13 baking dish with non-stick spray. Lay in the smallest cabbage leaves for a layer to prevent sticking and burning. Make each cabbage roll by laying out a cabbage leaf with the stem end toward you. Put about 1/3 cup filling on the cabbage leaf end toward you. Fold the sides over, then roll the whole thing up vertically, much like a burrito is wrapped.

Place each cabbage roll into the baking dish. Pour the sauce over the top. Bake at 350 for about an hour and fifteen minutes. Serve in heaps with love. 


jen said...

i can't deal with cabbage but i love, love, love that you are finalist and keep voting on your behalf.

Rachel said...

my dear, look more closely at your off-the-rack dress- it's actually vintage Chanel. Straighten up and walk proud - you're a finalst for a reason!

I looooove stuffed cabbage rolls. Great recipe, great story. How do you get your beef, btw - just various cuts, or do you choose?

The Expatriate Chef said...

Thank you both. I love that you visit my site and leave me such nice thoughts.

Beef comes in units of cow, quarter, side, whole steer. If you buy the cuts you like, it costs more. Getting the quantity it's $3.00/pound for all cuts. Compared to the grocery store, that's a huge deal.

katiez said...

I love stuffed cabbage rolls! I have a very strange recipe, somewhere, for stuffing them with saurkraut....
And your cauliflower soup...yummy!

Rachel said...

wow $3/pound is great! DH and I have often talked of buying a quarter cow and/or half sheep and cutting it up ourselves. I love experimenting with rendering edible the less obvious cuts, like shanks and such. Hugh Fearnley Wittingstall wrote a book about this - Meat. I'm a huge believer in this. Slooooow braising - just the right time of year for you in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Expatriate Chef said...

Rachel, you are a goddess. Growing your own food, sewing clothes, cooking, now butchering!

Shanks, oh yes. Braised long and slow in wine. Served up with garlic mashed potatoes on a chilly night. Almost makes winter do-able.

Rachel said...

actually, I'd recruit DH for the butchering. He's keen about it; he loves a good deal. Plus, don't give me too much credit; I work from home about 30 hours per week. Right off the bat, I've got an extra 90 minutes per day because I don't commute to work (gardening time in the morning, cooking time in the evening). Then the time during the day because I'm working, on average, about 4 hours per day. If I had to work full-time out of the house, a lot of this would fall to the side as well. You rate much higher in my book, m'deah; cooking, blogging, photography, mothering - all with a full-time job!

Anyway, going back to the point, I've investigated and I can get the good grass-fed, happy cow stuff for a similar price to you - around $6/kilo in quarter/half. What a deal - getting the prime cuts for that kind of money, plus having all the other cuts to experiment with. I do, however, draw the line at headcheese. Not for me, thanks. I don't want to open the stew pot and see my dinner looking back at me.