One of the best pieces of advice anyone can give a newlywed is to collect family recipes.
Sometimes, mothers of the bride will gather the recipes from their mothers and grandmothers and put them into a book as a wedding gift. Grandmothers will pass on the family favorites so traditions aren't lost forever.
But what do we do when our favorite family recipes aren't written down? This is what I faced as a newlywed when I wanted to duplicate my mother's stuffed cabbage rolls.
I don't know where my mother got the recipe or even began making what we called halupki, the Slovak word for stuffed cabbage. My family heritage is not Slovak; it is English and Welsh on both my mother and father's side, so to have this recipe as part of our family tradition is a puzzle.
I suspect it came from my mother's childhood, spent living in a coal mining town in southern Pennsylvania. It is likely that people from many cultures lived there, as well, and perhaps they shared their own traditions until the labels once given to a person's heritage became blurred and insignificant.
Regardless of where it came from, for as long as I can remember, my mother made cabbage rolls. I loved sitting at the kitchen table watching her mix up the filling and gently pull apart the leaves on a giant head of cabbage to make this dish. It was her signature holiday and potluck casserole that everyone expected and gobbled up until there was nothing left but a few drops of tomato sauce in the bottom of the pan.
Stuffed cabbage rolls (halupki)
1 large head cabbage
2 pounds ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup uncooked rice
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Two large cans tomato sauce
Clean the cabbage by discarding the outer leaves. Let it steam in simmering water for about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the cabbage sit in a colander to drain and cool while you make the filling. After it has cooled enough to handle, carefully cut out the core with a sharp knife, but don't cut all the way through the cabbage.
Mix the chopped onion, ground beef, bread crumbs, rice, eggs and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add enough tomato sauce to make a wet mixture that is still easy to handle.
Gently peel the leaves off the cabbage head. Extra large leaves can be cut in half the length of the spine. Particularly large, thick spines can be cut out with a sharp knife.
Place a palmful of the mixture in the center of the wide end of the leaf. Roll it up all the way to the end. With your fingers, push the ends inside the roll on each side, creating a solid tube with no seams.
Layer the rolls in a large roasting pan or slow cooker crock. Roast at 350 degrees for about two hours or all day on low heat in a slow cooker. Occasionally check the dish and add more tomato sauce if needed.
One large head of cabbage makes about 18 to 25 rolls.
My mother never made this for our own family dinners. This was a meal for a large crowd, and she always filled her largest roaster with layers of the cabbage rolls that fed many people over several days.
Shortly after I was married, I was invited to a potluck dinner and thought my mother's cabbage rolls would be the ideal dish to bring along, so I called her for the recipe. I already knew the method after watching her for so many years, but wasn't exactly sure of the ingredients or the proper amounts.
"I don't know," she said. "I just threw it together."
"How much onion and how much rice?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said again. "Just whatever looked right."
Unable to pry much more than this out of her, I started mixing chopped onion, eggs, bread crumbs, salt and pepper and then poured in what I thought looked like enough rice. I was a newlywed - I didn't remember that raw rice swells up considerably after taking in the moisture from the meat and sauce. What I ended up with that first attempt at making halupki was more rice than anything else in my filling.
I learned how to eyeball the ingredients just like my mother did through trial and error.
I also learned that other cooks have their own traditional methods of making cabbage rolls. My mother always used canned tomato sauce in her recipe, while my mother-in-law uses tomato juice. I've tried both and they are equally delicious. Others will add a bit of ketchup, as well, but I don't think this dish needs the extra spice.
To prepare the cabbage, I prefer to cut out the core after the head is steamed and cooled a bit. It is softer and easier to handle than if the core is cut out while the cabbage is still raw.
Cut around the circle of the dense core toward the center of the cabbage, making an inverted cone-shaped hole in the center. While pulling off the leaves, more parts of the core can be trimmed away later if needed.
Most of the recipes I've found for this dish explain how to roll up the mixture inside the cabbage leaves like an envelope, folding up the sides and placing the rolls seam side down in the pan. But my mother didn't do it this way. She always pushed the ends of the leaves inside the meat mixture like little tubes. I thought my mother's method held the rolls together more securely.
Once all of the leaves have been stuffed, my mother would toss any chunks of leftover cabbage into the pan along with the neatly wrapped rolls.
If she had more filling than leaves, she made small meat rolls and put them in the pan, as well. The kids always claimed those because kids don't usually like cooked cabbage.
In summer, when the cabbage in the garden is ready for harvest, I always save a few heads for making halupki. After cooking the rolls, I bag and freeze them for thawing and reheating during the winter. Not only do they make a great, quick meal after a busy work day, but they are a soothing comfort food for cold, winter nights.