No one ever tells you this, but the week after you get back from vacation is impossibly busy. For all you know, you come back, relaxed and tan, full of those lovely umbrella drinks, sand in your bag – and then wham, you get knocked down by work and life that apparently had the audacity to go on without you. You return to a full mailbox, bills to pay and laundry to do. I mean, the nerve, right? Shouldn’t the world stand still while you’re exercising your right to a bikini and a beach chair every day for a full week?
Oh and don’t get me started on the cold. The bone-numbing, soul-sucking, stop-you-in-your-tracks cold. I mean, I can’t even properly describe my dismay. Someone at work mentioned today that New York average temperatures around now were always in the mid-thirties and, well, we’ve certainly dipped below that just about every day. As luck would have it, my flight got into Newark on the same day that security breach took place and the airport was in near lock-down mode. I suggested to the pilot we turn the plane around and got back to Dominican Republic and he gave me a stare. I thought to myself, “Fine, but it’s either this, or an umbrella drink, buddy – you choose.”
We’re not even a month into this winter and already I’m whining. I swear, as the years go by the cold gets to me more and more. I complain about it bitterly, but get very little sympathy. Russians are supposed to tolerate these temperatures without so much as a shrug, I am told. But since I’ve not lived in the blustery St. Petersburg winter in over 21 years, I really can’t claim high tolerance for cold weather. Even if you do give me a vodka shot to quell the pain.
What I find myself doing, however, is craving Russian food. Badly. I like the heartiness and honesty of it; the way that it fills me up and makes me feel warm as if wrapped in a blanket. A food version of Snuggie, if you will, but far more attractive looking. And for me, in moments like this, stuffed cabbage really hits the spot.
In Russia, we called this dish “golubtsi”, and I’ve heard my Ukrainian friends refer to them as “holubki”. My friend Ryan took it one step further and referred to them as “pigs in blankets” and when I made fun of him and told he confused the name with another dish, quickly proved me wrong. But whatever you call them, they are amazing. In fact, they’re even better in the next few days as flavors develop more, and, if that weren’t bonus enough, they freeze beautifully too. Which is a great asset when you arrive home from the airport at 1 o’clock in the morning, starving and cold. A few minutes of defrosting in a microwave and you have a comforting, warm, soothing dinner. And if my week is busy, I can manage it, because I can have dinner ready in mere minutes, and focus on those other pesky things that took place in my absence, clearing my schedule for more important things like editing vacation photos. Clearly, more of a priority than paying bills.
2 quarts water
1 large green cabbage (about 2 1/2 pounds)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 celery stalks with leaves, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh, chopped dill
2 cups cooked rice
16 oz ground beef (I used ground turkey, but you can also use 1/2 beef and 1/2 pork or a combination)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
4 cups tomato puree
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup sour cream for garnish
dill for garnish
In a large stockpot, bring at least 2 quarts water to a boil. While you’re waiting on that, remove center core of cabbage. Once the water boils, pour the boiling water over the cabbage that you have placed into a deep bowl, to cover the cabbage completely. Put a lid on top of the bowl to let cabbage steam. Alternatively, you can gently slide the cabbage into the pot of water and let it steam there (fewer dishes to clean – bonus!) The reason you want to steam and not boil the cabbage is because it releases sulfur when cooked for an extended period of time and doesn’t smell so great (or so I’ve been told about the sulfur part).
Lift cabbage from water after a few minutes, and remove outer leaves. Return cabbage to the hot water and do that until all the leaves are softened. You might want to bring the water to a boil or add more hot water, but once water is hot enough, turn the heat off.
Reserve 2 cups cabbage cooking water. Trim thick center vein from bottom of each leaf.
Take the 3-4 largest outer leaves and line your pot or dutch oven with them.
In a medium skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and celery, and cook until golden and tender, about 8 minutes. Add some dill and cook another minute longer.
In a large bowl, combine onion mixture, rice, beef (or your ground meat of choice), salt and pepper. Stir well to combine
Add about 1/4 cup rice filling to one cabbage leaf and fold sides of cabbage over filling. Because you want to be starting with the stem end the filling should be closer to that end.
Roll the cabbage up and repeat with remaining leaves and filling.
Transfer stuffed cabbage to Dutch oven
In a large bowl, combine tomato puree, tomato paste and the reserved 2 cups of cabbage cooking water. Pour the mixture over the stuffed cabbage so it almost covers. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce to a gentle simmer; cover. Cook for 1 hour or longer, until cabbage is very tender, adding additional tomato sauce as needed.
Serve with dollops of sour cream and a sprinkling of dill.