Oma’s Cabbage Rolls

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I’m extremely excited to welcome Maggie Hennessy to the blog today. If you often read about the Chicago food scene, you may already know her, or at least her words. She is a certified chef, freelance food writer and, since last summer, the restaurant and bars critic for Time Out Chicago, one of a very small number of female food critics in the city. Luckily for me, Maggie agreed to take time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about what food means to her, and to share one of her favorite family recipes.

For Maggie, food is a bond, a point of contention, and the subject of some of her favorite memories. Her mother prioritized her children’s diet, spending hours shopping for and preparing their meals. “I remember her saying ‘food is love’ every day,” she told me.

Her mother’s mother–her Oma–was a German immigrant who smuggled seeds for German mache lettuce to America in her socks, and grew and preserved her own comestibles–the definition of old-world cooking, who was nevertheless “thrilled when she got her first microwave.” Maggie sees food as an expression of love, but recognizes it also as a reminder of the traditionally narrow role of women. That’s why “making raspberry jam in the suffocating summer heat with my grandmother was almost terrifying–with pots slamming and fruit splattering, so we knew the true labor involved.”

The time and energy that both her mother and grandmother sacrificed to make sure their families were fed had a profound effect on Maggie. “Coming from a first-generation German mom who stayed home to raise her kids instead of pursuing a full-time painting career, whose mother came to the States during World War II, grew her own food and did all the cooking–food has this duality as an expression of love complicated by a burdensome sense of the ‘role’ of women first and foremost as caretakers,” Maggie told me. “It makes me appreciate that they fed us in spite of and because of this–and it connects me to them in a way I couldn’t possibly understand as a kid. That they did the best they could with their situation.”

Maggie’s older sister Madeline has also shaped Maggie’s relationship with food. Her mother’s excellent and healthy cooking led Maggie and her sister to a sort of rebellion, indulging in sweet cereals at sleepovers and “breakfast Cokes” on the way to middle school, and later, “mid-afternoon cheese fry and banana shake runs” when her sister could drive. Maggie’s sister went on to a career of non-profit grant-writing, with a great concern for social issues, which has put them on seemingly opposite sides of the food world. “You try bringing up the trendiness of bone broth over a couple drinks with someone who spends her days fighting tooth and nail to get sick, chronically homeless people into housing.” Their lifelong dialog has been fruitful for both. Maggie is “still smitten with the notion of food as a unifier—a source of joy and an expression of love,” she says. “But I’ve also developed a healthy skepticism about its pretension, which I owe in large part to my sister.”

This life with food led Maggie to a career in food, by a roundabout way. She moved with her family from Boston to the suburbs of Chicago when she was seven, and studied journalism in college. “After graduation and about 35 newspaper job applications that went mostly unanswered, I finally got a job as a financial journalist. I hated the work, but was too afraid to take the plunge and quit. So instead, I’d research culinary schools on my lunch break and fantasize about leaving to pursue a dazzling career in food writing.”

However, like many young professionals in 2008, Maggie was affected by the recession: “Two years later, my whole team got laid off.” Seeing this as an opportunity, Maggie took her meager savings and went to culinary school. “For one year, I spent my nights trekking to Kendall College in that tragically unflattering chef’s uniform to make crepes, sear lamb chops, weave challah bread, roll fresh pasta, and make blood sausage from scratch.” 

Still, she wasn’t sure how to transition from culinary school into food writing. But she found that the “chef-instructors were accommodating, letting me observe student dinner service and tirelessly document and photograph every moment of class. That year taught me wondrous things, too, like the magic of making consomme, the secret to Roman marinara (anchovies!), and the sound a perfectly baked baguette makes” 

Once she finished her courses, she was able to find work in business-to-business food journalism. She told me, “I worked at a series of trade publications covering every aspect of fine-dining and fast-casual restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, and packaged food and beverage. I was desperate to maintain some connection to food, even if it meant covering high-volume bakery equipment or GMO labeling.”

But eventually she decided it wasn’t enough. With the support of her “husband / soulmate / best friend Sean,” she took the plunge to become a full-time freelance food and drink writer.

Oma

Though she credits her mother and sister with shaping her ideas about food, her earliest experience came from her grandmother. “My grandma grew up in a little town in Germany not far from Frankfurt, in a family of poor farmers,” Maggie told me. “She married my grandpa, who was Croatian and a watchmaker, during World War II. They moved to Fairfield, Connecticut, where her sister lived, and had three children. My grandparents were very religious. Oma worked in retail and was a wonderful seamstress. She used to make these incredible retro dresses and coats for our Barbie dolls.”

Maggie tells me that her Oma “maintained a massive backyard garden, cooked and baked everything from scratch and made preserves out of what she couldn’t use up.” Even though she died of cancer at the young age of 64, when Maggie was only five, she and her story left a strong impression. Maggie dreamily recalls “the smell of newspapers in the kitchen, where my grandfather would sit reading and muttering about corrupt politics while he slathered thick pats of butter on his poppy seed bagel; hunting for deliciously grainy lumps in Oma’s famous cream of wheat laced with sugar and heavy cream; the tinny scraping sound of fork on metal as my grandmother whisked oil, lemon and green onion together to make her now-famous ‘Oma dressing,’ which my mom, sister and I still make almost daily to this day; the taste of syrupy raspberry-filled milk chocolate bars, which Oma always presented us with the moment we arrived.”

The recipe that Maggie decided to share is for her grandmother’s cabbage rolls. When I asked Maggie why she decided to share this recipe in particular, she told me a few reasons. “One, because as I’ve gotten older cooking has increasingly become a meditative pursuit in the sense that it requires us to truly live in the moment. The first part of the recipe fulfills this–with plenty of chopping, par-cooking, mixing, stuffing and assembling. Each step is simple, but you have to be present,” she said. “The second reason I shared this recipe is exactly the opposite of the first–and equally why I love it so much. Stuffed cabbage rolls are one of the most forgiving dishes you’ll ever make; I’m not kidding. Even if a few cabbage leaves rip, or you overfill them, or forget to add the sauerkraut till the very end, or the bottom of the pot burns a little, this dish always turns out delicious. There’s something to be said for submerging a bunch of stuff in liquid in a pot, leaving it alone over low heat, then it comes out the other side as a flavorful, fulfilling and coherent meal.”

Maggie clarified that she had never had these rolls from her grandmother’s kitchen, but only ever had them made by her mother. “We usually visited my grandparents in summertime, and stuffed cabbage rolls–filled with bacon, beef and rice and slow-braised in tomatoes and sauerkraut–are total winter food.” As Maggie was telling me this story, she said something striking: “I’m so glad she never made them for me.” It’s the sign of a true family recipe when it has life beyond the first person to make it. These are Oma’s cabbage rolls when Maggie’s mother makes them, and they are still Oma’s when Maggie makes them today.

These rolls define the type of food that Maggie always comes back to, “warming, hearty and comforting one-pot meals, heavy on vegetables and never without starch.” As I’ve often been told in previous posts (and as I’ve done myself with my family recipes), Maggie has adapted her grandmother’s recipe to her own taste, “upping the tomato because I’m an unapologetic sauce lover and seasoning every layer because being a chef turns that into a compulsory act. Adapting it filled me with endless joy, because I deem that the real mark of recipe mastery. “

I also like to think they’re the perfect expression of the type of woman my grandmother was–resourceful, labor-intensive, warm and tidy, with a slight bite.” 

Cabbage Rolls

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Oma’s Cabbage Rolls
Makes about 12 rolls

Ingredients:
1/2 cup white rice
Salt, as needed
1 large head cabbage
3-4 strips bacon, diced 1/4 inch
1 tsp butter
1 medium yellow onion
Pepper, to taste
2 pounds 85% lean ground beef
2 eggs
1 pound sauerkraut
1 14-oz can tomato sauce
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes
14 oz water

Instructions:

Bring 1 cup water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the rice, and cook for about 10 minutes, until cooked about halfway through (it will cook the rest of the way inside the cabbage rolls). Drain off any excess water and dump the rice into a large bowl.

While the rice is cooking, heat a large pot two-thirds full of salted water until boiling. Carefully add the whole head of cabbage and boil for 5 minutes. Remove, and immediately plunge into a large bowl of ice water for 30 seconds, turning constantly, to stop the cooking process. Set on paper towels to drain.

Place diced bacon in a cold skillet with a large pat of butter. Turn the heat up to medium, and slowly render the bacon until slightly brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the onion and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute until the onion is softened and slightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add the onions and bacon to the rice mixture. Then add the ground beef, eggs, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Puncture the yolks, and mix everything together until evenly incorporated.

To assemble the cabbage rolls, pull one cabbage leaf off at a time and place it on a cutting board with the inside facing up and the root end closest to you.

Place a few tablespoons of the beef mixture in the center of the leaf. Fold each side in toward the center so they’re overlapping. (Don’t worry if there are a few rips in the cabbage leaves. Everything will come together when it cooks.)

Roll forward and away from you, tucking in the sides as you go like you’re rolling up a burrito. Set the rolls seam-side down on a sheet tray, and repeat until you’ve used up all the filling. If there is only a little cabbage left, chop it up finely and toss it in the pot with the cabbage rolls. Otherwise, seal the rest in an airtight container and put it in the fridge.

Place a 5-quart Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot on the stove. Cover the bottom with a layer of sauerkraut (and extra chopped cabbage if you have it), then a layer of cabbage rolls. Season with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Repeat this process until all the cabbage rolls are nestled inside the pot.

Pour the tomato sauce and diced tomatoes over everything. Fill the 14-ounce tomato sauce can with water and pour that over the rolls as well. Top with a little more sauerkraut and season again with salt and pepper.

Turn the heat on medium, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Turn the heat down to low (the pot should be lightly bubbling), cover the pot and cook the cabbage rolls for 2 hours, until the meat is cooked through and the cabbage leaves are tender.

To serve, place 2 rolls in a shallow bowl or on a plate. Top with a few ladles of the sauerkraut tomato sauce. Serves 4 to 6.

Note: Stuffed cabbage rolls freeze beautifully. Place the cooked cabbage rolls and a few spoonfuls of sauce in airtight containers in the freezer up to 3 months. The day you’re ready to eat them, put them in the fridge 8 hours ahead to thaw, then reheat them gently over medium low on the stove.

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When I had coffee with Maggie to discuss this post, I had just made the cabbage rolls the day before. I told her I was skeptical before I made them, because I don’t count myself as a lover of cabbage or sauerkraut. But then I ate one. And then my husband and I ate every last one of them. Seriously, they’re that good. Cozy comfort food at its finest.

If you are interested in learning more about Maggie and her work, you can catch up with her on Twitter and Instagram, or on her personal website. She also recently co-authored a cookbook with Mitch Einhorn (of Twisted Spoke) that she hopes will be published later this year.

In addition, Maggie recently wrote a piece for Cherrybombe, that is not so much about food, as it is about muting other people’s negativity and overcoming feelings of inadequacy and inexperience to become a food critic. You should definitely read it. If you’re a woman in almost any occupation, but particularly a nontraditional one, this article will strike a chord with you.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story and your grandmother’s recipe, Maggie!

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