It happens the same way each year. Just as the leaves begin to turn colors and the crisp fall air fills my lungs, I get a frantic phone call from my mother.
I hear the desperation in her voice, and I know it can be about only one thing: pareve ginger snaps. These little trinkets of goodness are the heart and soul of my mother’s beloved stuffed cabbage recipe, and each year, we go on the same wild goose chase to find the cookies. We’ve had a series of very funny experiences: Once we found the cookies in Texas (we’re from Boston), and another time we found them online but didn’t realize they were available only by the case (yes, that’s 12 boxes). After hours of googling, the situation always ends in the same way: We are able to find the cookies, and we breathe a sigh of relief knowing that once again we’ll be able to enjoy the same stuffed cabbage of our childhood Shabbat dinners.
As far back as I can remember, we’ve called these stuffed delicacies holubtsi (pronounced cha-loop-tsees), the Russian name for stuffed cabbage. This recipe is a family heirloom, and my mother deserves all the credit for teaching us to make this special treat. Though patchkying (loosely defined as fiddling, often implying a laborious task) may be out of style, my mom still hand rolls each and every stuffed cabbage, and her dedication to this recipe is evident in every bite. While I don’t advocate cutting corners, apparently our ancestors thought it was permissible, because they created a variation of the dish, called lenivye golubtsy (lazy cabbage rolls). In that case, the cabbage is chopped and mixed in with the ground meat so that there is no need to wrap every meatball in a cabbage leaf; it’s basically the “unstuffed” cabbage, or small meatballs with shredded cabbage mixed inside.
There are different types of stuffed cabbages, and depending on your family’s origins, you may favor the savory variety made with pickled cabbage, root vegetables and rice, while others prefer the sweet variety made with dried fruits. My family grew up on the sweet-and-sour type, the most “mainstream” style of stuffed cabbage, which consists of meat wrapped meticulously in cabbage leaves and drizzled with dried fruits, brown sugar and stewed tomatoes.
In his book, “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food”, Gil Marks explains that about 2,000 years ago, cabbage emerged as one of the most important plants in the Jewish diet. He cites a talmudic saying — “Together with the thorn, the cabbage is smitten” — suggesting the importance of the cabbage’s edible portion despite its harmful thorns. For the Jewish people and, more specifically, for me, the cabbage is not only nutritional, but also spiritual. The juxtaposition between the harmful thorns (the craziness that is my week) and the hearty cabbage inside (the pleasantness that is Shabbat) further reinforces the beauty of this dish. This dish forces me to parse out the good from the bad, savoring only the positive elements of my week while rejoicing in Shabbat’s arrival.
Adapted from the Temple Beth- El Cookbook, Swampscott MA
I large head of green cabbage (depending on the size, I use two)
2 pounds of ground meat, ½ ground beef, ½ ground turkey
½ grated onion
1 15 ounce can of tomatoes
½ - ¾ cup brown sugar (add in the first ½ cup initially, and while cooking if you feel it needs more sugar, add up to another ¼ cup)
½ - ¾ cup golden raisins (again, add the additional ¼ cup while cooking)
6 ginger snaps, crushed*
Juice from 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
1 onion, cut up
Prunes (to your liking)
Small amount of water (for covering stuffed cabbage)
*if you can’t find pareve ginger snaps, which seems to be common these days, you can substitute the ginger snaps for 4 pieces of very finely diced candied ginger.
Hold the cabbage upright so that it’s sitting on the stem. Core the cabbage as you would a pineapple, and cut out the thick veins at the bottom. Don’t worry if it’s messy, this does not have to be precise. Repeat for the second cabbage, if using. Place the cabbage in a large bowl. Boil a small pot of water, and pour the water over the cabbage. Let it soak in hot water for 10 minutes until you can peel off the leaves and they feel soft enough for rolling. Separate the leaves. and set aside. The outer leaves will be much larger than the inner leaves; cut those in half so that the individual pieces of stuffed cabbage end up being the same size.
In a separate bowl, mix the two kinds of meat (ground turkey and ground beef), eggs, chopped onion, salt and pepper. Stir thoroughly.
Place a small mound (about the amount that fits in the palm of your hand) of the meat mixture onto each cabbage leaf, roll up the sides and place in large, deep pot. Repeat until you’ve used all the meat mixture. Arrange stuffed cabbage compactly. If there is left over cabbage, cut into small pieces and sprinkle on top.
Cover the stuffed cabbage with a small amount of water. Add the brown sugar, prunes, raisins, tomatoes, ginger snaps, lemon juice and one onion, cut up, into the pot on top of the stuffed cabbage. Cover and let simmer for about 3 hours. Taste and add more seasonings as desired (I usually add more raisins and brown sugar). Next, place the pot (covered) in the oven and bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour. Check the stuffed cabbages; if they’re starting to dry out, cover with a bit more water and cook uncovered for another 30 minutes. While this dish takes about 3.5 – 4 hours to cook, once it’s cooking you can step away and finish prepping your other Shabbat dishes.
Naomi Sugar is the author of 365scoops.com, a blog dedicated to making and sharing her ice cream creations. When she’s not creating ice cream, Naomi works for Project Sunshine and holds a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University.