a cabbage recipe

‘m going to meander through a recipe – lots of almost stream of consciousness pondering here, so be warned.

Most of my cooking, I can trace the recipe to a cookbook.  It may be an OLD cookbook, but it’s still a cookbook.  I’ve got a handful of recipes, though, which I can only call “family recipes”.  They were written and originally used by my grandparents.  I’m going to play with one here because it’s, well, odd, and invites some pondering.

Now, the basic recipe is to take a couple of pound of sausage (and/or other ground meat) mixed with an equal volume of rice.  Grab a handful and place it on a softened cabbage leaf, which you then form into a diaper roll.  ummm… picture the leaf as a lozenge.  Bring bottom, left and right points to just past center, then roll tightly to top.  Now in a large pot, layer saurkraut, rolls, and canned tomatos, and continue till the pot is full.  Finish with a layer of saurkraut.  Lid, and cook at low temperature for a long time.  The recipe I’ve got says use a pressure cooker for four hours.  Basically, you want the cabbage to be very tender – almost falling off.

Now it’s time for the meander.  See, my grandmother, and so my mother, called these saramas.  And if you go looking, there are some names of cabbage rolls that almost match, but not quite.

One name that’s close are Romanian sarmalas.  The sarmalas you eat in Romania from Romanian restaurants or families, are ALMOST like the family recipe, but with one wee little difference.  No saurkraut or tomatoes.  They’re boiled in water for a long time instead.  Oh, and a lot of the time the leaf is grape instead of cabbage.  Yes, Dolmas (among other names).  But still, no saurkraut.

However, the recipe as generally described does exist.  You need to move a bit west to find it, and there it goes by various names.  In the neighboring nation, Hungary, they’re golabki – and if you get up to Poland they go by the same name.  Between them, in Slovakia you get Hulapki.  And the Croatians in what used to be Czechoslovakia call them Sarma.  hmmm, close – as close as the Romanian.

So this “old family recipe” probably came from Croatians.  Which means, sigh, it’s not an old family recipe.  My mother’s done some genealogy, and we know her family has German roots.  In Germany, kohlrouden is more Sarmale than Sarma – no saurkraut (seriously).  And even if they did use that recipe, it’d be more likely I’d know it as golabki or halapki.  sigh.  Somewhere up the tree, one of the cooks of her family spent time with or near some Croatians, liked (or had to have) the meal, and learned it.

So the old family recipe isn’t from my roots.  Not really.  Truth to tell, that doesn’t really bother me.  A family recipe is one you prepare and your family eats with regularity.  Whether you created it from scratch, it came from generations of whispered secrets, or it’s just this divine combination you saw Alton Brown toss together just.  doesn’t.  matter to me.  Unless you pass it off as something else, that is.  (yes, that’s a dig at Cindy McCain’s “old family recipes” that are copies of recent things from the Food Network.  Stupid, that.)  OK, time for a hard left turn – and we’re not in Albuquerque, even.

I used to be in the Society for Creative Anachronism – still kind of keep an ear to the ground with them.  Here in Meridies, therewas this interesting cooking contest I’d have considered entering just because.  I don’t recall the actual name – something like Feed the Mob.  Prepare a meal for 50 – a period meal.  Now when I saw it, the first thing that actually came to mind were the saramas.  Only I hadn’t really researched the backstory you see above.  I just knew that it made a lot, and excluding the tomatoes could easily be a “period” fare.

For those who have never found the SCA, it’s a medieval recreation group.  When I was active, it was “600-1650, worldwide”.  And we tolerated some degree of fantastical – no outright elves, but the tuchuks and, well, let’s not go there.  These days, it’s officially “pre-17th century Europe”.  I know they tolerate other regions, but most of that’s grandfather.  And the fantastical… ah well.  ANYWAY… “period” means “existed pre-17th century, and preferably with documentation.”

Now I couldn’t possibly have done the documentation, but I COULD tweak it so the recipe would fit, I thought.  Did I mention it makes a lot?  As in if everyone eats two rolls and some saurkraut there’s usually enough for 10-15 people?  Yeah, lots.  I thought, “hey, add a rye trencher and a dollop of sour cream…”

Rye trencher.  No, Trencher.  Take a round loaf of bread.  Let it sit out for a day, maybe two.  Not crisp dried, but definitely… tough.  Now split it, top and bottom.  This is your trencher.  It’s your plate.  Put your meal on top and eat.  Hopefully your meal had some liquid to soften and flavor the bread, because you get to eat that too to finish up.  A rye trencher is, well, a trencher of rye bread.  Pretty obvious, huh?

Now in my musing, I knew that I was making a peasant meal.  All of this is stuff that the poor folk ate – and the wealthy who were trying to stretch a coin or two.  Cabbage, swollen grain, a bit of ground meat, more cabbage (soured), and rye.  Oh, rye.

The wealthy ate wheat.  The poor who could afford grain ate rye – or oats if they were in northwest Europe.  Barley and Wheat were expensive to grow, creating much less grain per land and effort.  In the region from whence my dish comes, oats aren’t common — they need too much water.  So, rye.  And so, rye trenchers.

I idly started breaking the dish down for “period”.  I knew – KNEW – that there were two things that needed drastic change.  Rice, and tomatoes.  Neither were period for that time and place.

I played with the inside first as it was, well, fairly obvious.  No rice.  Cracked rye berries instead.  Potatoes snuck in, barely, but the history is such they were HIGHLY unlikely to be used.  Nope.  Cracked rye berries are going to turn out like a slightly denser bulgur wheat – with a little more chew, really.  Filling, and flavor.  Yep, that worked.

It was the tomatoes that were the hard part.  And that’s what got me to really looking at the sources of this dish.  And I have me a theory.  See, I think that originally they were all just the rolls boiled in water.  And in all these places, yes even where they’re still boiled in water, various flavorings were added to the water.  Where spices were reasonably accessible, your water got spices.  Where they weren’t, you got saurkraut.  Yep, that simple – I think.  Tomatoes were a later modification by adventurous cooks, which worked so well EVERYONE added one more step.  That’s far from unreal, folks – just look at the adjustments made even today to “classic” recipes as folk substitute for adventure or desperation.

Filled rolls show up in a lot of cultures for several very good reasons.  They’re often portable,and always able to be eaten without utensils.  They make apportionment relatively easy.  The Earl of Sandwich may have invented the stack – me, I think he got credit for an idea that had been repeated many a time by a peasant in the field, centuries before.  He just had spare bread to enclose it instead of using some leaves or other dough.

So anyway, that’s what I’d have made.  Five heads of cabbage, about ten pounds of ground meat with spices ‘normal’ for the slovakian wedge (Poland down through Czechoslovakia) and another ten pounds (before cooking) of cracked rye.  About ten more pounds of saurkraut.  Oh, five to ten onions – the dominant spice (grin).  Partially cook the meat with spices, and short-boil the rye — both are going to finish in the roll.  Chop the onions, and mix with the meat and grain.  Core the cabbages, and boil them long enough for the leaves to soften – but not much.  Make the rolls, and put in deep pots layered with saurkraut.  Add some – I’d cheat here, and add a bit of stock instead of water, and let them simmer over a low fire for the rest of the day.  Meantime, prepare rye trenchers (bake them if possible, but 25 8 inch rounds is a LOT of loaves of bread, and bread ovens in the field are a major pain in and of themselves.  If I really wanted the reward, sure, but…)  Since it was a bit of a feast, two sides – pickled beets, and boiled parsley.  hmmm, we did a hard left earlier, let’s go for the right.  Boiled parsley.

Parsley is an extremely common potherb in this time and place.  It’s going to place right in there with other greens.  Now I personally don’t like it as well boiled, but for THIS meal (time and place) that’s the ‘correct’ way to prepare it.

And that’s what I’d have served.  An “old family recipe, deconstructed”.

I’d actually like to make this recipe, to eat it myself.  Go back above, though, and you’ll see the major problem.  Makes LOTS.  Since neither my wife or daughter like it, that means a week of leftovers.  There is, sadly, a limit to what I can stand.

One last bit in closing.  I know I’d have gone for rye, but there’s another ingredient that probably would have met the starch requirement, and these days it’d have been cheaper.  Legumes – peas or beans.  They’d actually work.  But to me they’re too large and would actually dominate the meal.  No thanks.

Well, thanks for walking with me.   See you later.


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