Saturday, January 15, 2011

Nana's Stuffed Cabbage

Nana's "holubki" or little pigeons, are nestled on a bed of sauerkraut, and blanketed with a savory tomato sauce.  I'm fortunate to have a copy of Nana's recipe, written in her hand, with specific instructions to me :)

The city of Pittsburgh, and the surrounding area, has forever been a melting pot of old-world European ethnicities, where one is likely to find a corner restaurant serving not only pickled pigs feet and keilbasa, but pasta and lamb shish-ka-bob as well .  I grew-up believing that every child in America had a grandmother that hand-fashioned potato pierogi, and stuffed cabbage for family celebrations, as mine did.

We realized just how unique Pittsburgh is, when we moved out of the area to find that ethnic in most cities meant Chinese take-out, or the Olive Garden.  My Irish mother, a great fan of anything potato, made it a priority to learn how to make the pierogi, but it was up to me to learn the secrets behind Nana's wonderful little pigeons.

The task seemed daunting at first, and I do admit that it's taken a few attempts to really get the hang of rolling the cabbage, but perseverance paid off in the end.  Though I have found restaurants that serve them, nobody's cabbages taste like Nana's.

The hardest part of making the cabbage rolls, is finding the right head of cabbage.  You'll want to select a large, smooth head.  I've found that I'm better off buying two heads, using the best leaves from each.  You'll have waste, but you can always make cole slaw!

First, core each head.  Use your fingertips to peel away as many whole leaves as possible (tough, but possible with patience), then carefully steam the leaves until they are pliable (not cooked through).  Slide a sharp paring knife along the backside of any leaves that have a large protruding vein, and shave it off, being careful not to cut the leaf.  Set leaves aside.

For the meat filling:
1 pound lean ground beef
1/3 pound lean ground pork
1 cup of cooked white rice (not instant)

Mix the filling ingredients together, and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

You'll also need:
1 large can or jar of sauerkraut (do not drain)
1 large can of condensed tomato soup
1 quart of diced or crushed tomatoes (optional)

Line the bottom of a large dutch oven with a layer of cabbage (use your discards, not your whole leaves).  Put 1/3 of sauerkraut on top of the cabbage.  Top with 1/3 tomato.

Arrange the whole leaves on the counter, so the bottom of each is closest to you - cupped side up.  Place slightly more than a tablespoon (you'll be able to judge how much will fit) of filling toward the top of each leaf. Tightly roll the top of the leaf slightly over the filling.  Wrap both sides over the filling, toward the center, and continue rolling toward the bottom of the leaf.

Place each roll, in the dutch oven in such a way as to prevent them from unrolling (see photo above).  Layer again with sauerkraut and tomato.  Continue rolling and layering cabbages.  You should end with a layer of kraut and tomato on top (see note below).

Cover all with the sauerkraut brine and water.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for about ninety minutes (or, after bringing to a boil, cover and bake at 350 degrees for about as long).  Check while cooking to make sure there is enough liquid in the pot so the bottom doesn't burn.  Add water if needed.

My grandmother always served these with either potato pierogi, or mashed potatoes.  Delicious!

(Note:  If you don't have a dutch oven, these can be made in a roaster.  Sray with cooking oil first, and line with cabbage leaves. Put one layer of kraut and tomato on bottom, and then lay the cabbage rolls on top, in a single layer.  Top again with kraut and tomato.  Make sure there is enough liquid in the roaster so the little pigeons don't scorch!)

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