Memories are made of tastes and smells and these are the strongest ties to the past.
By the time I met Safta Hannah, my husband’s grandmother she was old, frail and impatient with the world, living alone in a one bedroom apartment. She was an intelligent women who had to struggle against society’s antiquated and dogmatic ideas about women when she did not have the privileged to live the traditional domestic life expected of her. As a young widow with a small child to rear in the backdrop of national, political and social upheavals of Israel in the 1950’s, she had an enormous amount of responsibility thrust upon her. Not only did she have to earn her bread, she had to bake it as well and even despite her hardships she produced the most wonderful meals of Egyptian specialties she learned from her home in Cairo. I never tasted any of her food but for twenty years my husband has been telling me about her crisp fried kibbeh, aromatic fish patties, chickpea salad, cumin flavored meatballs stuffed with eggs and delicate stuffed cabbage leaves. Whenever my husband described the stuffed cabbage he would invariably raised one finger and say “She made them as thin as this and nobody made them better!” He has said this so many times that somehow that memory seems to be implanted in my brain, as if I was the one sitting in her dining room.
The only way to taste Safta Hannah’s wonderful food is to try to reproduce it and that isn’t so trivial anymore. She was the youngest of eight daughters and now their children are dispersed throughout the country. Every year, however, all the siblings from one sister, Berta as well as my husband’s family, get together to talk about the past, to bring up the new and most importantly to try to keep the family bonded. This was a good opportunity to ask around to see if anyone made stuffed cabbage and indeed Berta’s son, Tzveka gave me a recipe while the rest of the family kept saying “We didn’t know you made stuffed cabbage, we know you forever so how is it possible we don’t know this about you?” Ah, the secrets that lurk within a family! According to my husband there was another sister who was considered a talented cook of the family and now I am determined to track that side of the family down.
His recipe uses parsley, dill and onions in the stuffing similar to another stuffed cabbage recipe I found on Recipe Zaar from an American living in Egypt. It is her recipe that I use here with slight changes and it is very good.
Egyptian Style Stuffed Cabbage
Modern Egyptians reflect migrations from Europe, Asia and Arabia and their cuisine has origins different from the cuisine of their western Berber neighbors. Bread is the staple and not couscous. In fact, abundant wheat was grown on the fertile soil of the Nile flood plains and during Roman times, much of the surplus crop was sent to Rome, to feed the empire. The Abbasid Arabs as well as the Ottomans realized the importance of Egypt, not only for providing food for their great armies but for its strategic location in the spice trade. The Ottoman influence can be seen in the stuffed grape leaves and other vegetables such as this version of stuffed cabbage.
I have made several different varieties of stuffed cabbage but so far this is my favorite. The Israeli Arabs like to add more garlic, as do the Druze. Sometimes they also add whole chickpeas to the rice mixture. At Elbabur restaurant in the Galil they flavor their rolls with cardamom, baharat and nutmeg and do not use any herbs. Often rice and ground meat is combined together such as the Lebanese version flavored with lemon juice. In Syria they make it similarly except for the addition of tamarind concentrate and ground allspice. In short, there are as many recipes as those who are making them.
Large head of green cabbage
2 cups short grain white rice
1 onion, finely grated
1 bunch each of fresh parsley, cilantro, dill- finely chopped, including some of the stems
2 large tomatoes blended and reduced
1 large onion chopped.
3 tablespoons tomato paste (about 50g)
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon cumin
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons dry mint
1 teaspoon baharat
Juice of half lemon
**Do not overcook the cabbage, longer than one hour it begins to smell like rotten eggs because of the sulfur reactions caused by heat. Another method to soften the cabbage is to put the entire head into the freezer for at least 24 hours. When the cabbage defrosts, the leaves should be wilted enough to fold. I tried freezing the cabbage but I found that it was still not pliable enough after I defrosted it.
Rice stuffing mixture
In a pan add 3-4 tablespoons of oil or butter and sauté the onion until translucent. Add garlic when the onions are almost finished and continue cooking for a few more seconds while mixing. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Add a spoon of tomato paste and mix well. Add pureed or chopped tomato and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated. It should be thick, not watery. Set aside.
Put washed rice in mixing bowl. Add the above tomato mixture, chopped green herbs, dried mint, spices and canola oil. Mix all ingredients until well blended set aside.
Wash the head of cabbage well. With a paring knife, gently cut around core, loosening it a bit. Try to cut deep, but try not to cut leaves or separate. Boil a large pot of water and then add the head of cabbage, with core facing up. As the cabbage starts to cook, with a knife and a BBQ fork to keep it in place, gently pull away leaves from core and cook until a bit soft, but not translucent. The cabbage head will be cooking in the pot with loose leaves around it. Transfer softened cabbage leaves to a large tray. Continue this until all cabbage is cooked.
Rolling and stuffing the cabbage
Coat bottom of wide, shallow pot with oil. Thinly slice one large tomato and place on bottom of pot. You will arrange cabbage in this pot as you roll.
Take a cabbage leaf and cut from the bottom, where the core starts.
Cut away the hard core and reserve the two sides from the leaf making a pile. Save a few of the cores stems. Cut the leaf into small pieces, quartering each leaf if necessary. The end result should be the size of a cigar.
With the leaf lying flat, spoon a small amount of rice onto leaf, fold up bottom and roll like a cigar. It is not necessary to close the ends. Roll all the leaves in this way and place them seam side down in the tomato lined pot, keeping them close together until a snug layer is formed. As you are arranging in pot, you can put a few of the core stems in between layers to help stay in place.
Take about 3 cups water and mix with tomato paste and lemon juice, pour over cabbage. Water should reach just above cabbage. If not enough, add more water.
Take an old plate, invert it over cabbage to keep from floating. Put on high, bring to a boil, cook for about 10 minutes, then reduce to a simmer and cover for 45 min-1 hour. Check to see if rice is fully cooked by tasting one of the rolls.
When the cabbage has finished cooking, let it sit, covered to cool, about 30 minutes. When ready to remove, take a large serving platter, put over top of pot and flip pot to empty onto platter. Remove core stems, fix tomatoes that are on top, to look presentable.