Monday, January 19, 2009

Jewish Comfort Food? How About Prakas?

This is one of those seat-of-the-pants pieces, inspired by a call for stuffed cabbage recipes on Twitter this evening by Judy Chiappini of No Fear Entertaining. I couldn't resist offering my grandmother's recipe and the query then took on a life of its own.

When I was in my 20s I hounded my grandmother, Tillie Gould, to write down her recipes for me. The result was a small denim loose-leaf notebook with a photo she taped on the front page of her with my grandfather carving a Thanksgiving turkey. The photo was taken before I was born and I treasure it and the notebook, which is filled with all sorts of family favorites.

The recipe is in that notebook but her handwriting was moving toward illegible and she had a tendency to leave out ingredients or directions in her old age. So I took out a red folder filled with recipes my mom has given me over the years. There it was. But the ingredients list was slightly different. I gave her a call and together we reviewed the process with me typing and editing as she talked. So now it's accurately documented. My mom hasn't made the dish in awhile so now we're going to get together and make it. The great thing is that this fairly labor-intensive dish is freezable, so I'll be able to take home packages to reheat and eat at my leisure.

Stuffed cabbage, or prakas in Yiddish, is one of those peasant dishes that makes great use of inexpensive ingredients to create a large filling meal. Traditionally, it's made with ground beef but I've had it with ground turkey and it tastes wonderful too. The most important element is the sweet-and-sour sauce. Play with the lemon juice and sugar amounts until you get it just right. It should have some punch to it.

And, I apologize for the lack of photos. That's what happens when you're spontaneous. I'll add photos once my mom and I make the dish.

Tillie’s and Evie’s Prakas (Rolled Cabbage)


1 large green cabbage

1 1/2 lb. lean ground beef or turkey

¼ c. cooked or instant rice

1 tsp. garlic salt

Pepper to taste

Large can of crushed tomatoes

Small can of tomato sauce

About a dozen or more seeded prunes and dried apricots

About a dozen ginger snaps, crushed to crumbs (optional)

1 bay leaf

1 ½ cups of sugar

Juice of one lemon

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Core the cabbage and submerge it in the boiling water. Let it cook for a few minutes and as the outer leaves become pliable, pull them off and continue cooking until the leaves large enough to be rolled are cooked and pulled. Don't worry about the small leaves in the center. On the back of the leaves is a thick membrane. Slice a thin piece off to make the leaf more flexible for rolling.

Mix together the ground meat, rice, garlic salt and pepper. Place about 1 ½ tbsp—depending on the size of the leaf—toward the bottom of the cabbage leaf. Fold the bottom up and over the meat mixture. Then fold in the sides and roll to the top. It should look like a cylinder. Place each roll on the bottom of a high-sided pan with the seam on the bottom. You can stack a couple of layers.

Scatter the prunes and apricots around and on top of the rolls. Pour the crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce over the rolls. Add the bay leaf. Add the crushed ginger snaps (optional). Cover and bake.

After 45 minutes, baste the cabbage rolls with the liquids. Do this a few times in 20-minute intervals (more or less). Cook for about 2 hours or until the leaves begin to look wilted. Remove the prunes and apricots. Put them into sieve over a bowl and mash the fruit to create a puree (or blend them in a food processor). Put the puree back into the sauce and mix it around.

Pour off some of the liquid into a bowl. Add about a cup and a half of sugar to the hot liquid to dissolve the sugar. Then add the lemon juice and create a sweet-and-sour sauce. Pour this back into the pan and stir around. Taste and correct with more sugar or more lemon juice until flavors are balanced sweet and sour but not bland. Spoon the juice over the cabbage so it absorbs the flavors. Let it cook for up to another half hour. It can be served at this point but the flavors are best when this is made a day ahead. It can easily be frozen.

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  1. What a great story, and fabulous photograph! Stuffed cabbage is something my mother used to make, too and it brings back many memories of sitting around our kitchen table watching my sister's theatrics because she didn't care for it. I, on the other hand, love it! Our recipe doesn't include the fruit or snaps though...

  2. Thanks, Kelly. That's so funny. As for fruit and snaps. The fruit is something I have always had in it. I was surprised by the snaps and so was my mom. She's never included them. So, we'll call them optional ;)

  3. Don't you just LOVE these old recipes? There's a good reason all this comfort food is coming back in vogue. A) it doesn't break the bank to make it. B) It's good!

    I recently made stuffed cabbage for my husband - you'd have thought I was Thomas Keller that night. Wow! How come you never make this for me? Is that all there is?

    I ate the small little misshapen ones from the inside leaves. He had plenty, don't worry.

    Once I made a very exotic gourmet meal for an old boyfriend from South America. He was equally ecstatic as he gobbled it up. "Tell me what is it this dish? How do you call it again? It's fantastic."


    Take that Keller!

  4. We make them by simply boiling the cabbage then wrapping them around balls of of ground beef, covering them with tomato sauce, and baking them. It is extremely easy, healthy, and delicious (plus, they freeze and re-heat well). I am a vegetarian, so we use faux meat-balls (found at most grocery stores like Kingsoopers) and it is still one of my favorite meals.