Mom wasn’t a cook—she had help for that, and she had her hands full trying to mother six kids–two from her marriage to my father, four with my stepfather. We were not a Brady Bunch-style sitcom, and the dinner hour often descended into arguments during which plates were left untouched and doors were slammed. Better to have Mom at the table mediating than in the kitchen frying, roasting, or baking.
But there was one dish she did make, on special occasions, and it was so delicious that it shut us up, tranquilized us, turned us all into compliant, grateful children. It was her stuffed cabbage, which was made with low-rent ingredients like Campbell’s tomato soup and Uncle Ben’s white rice; she was a product of the Depression who grew up in the Bronx, and she didn’t care about fancy, expensive foods.
She’d make it during the winter when we were craving hearty, comforting, stick-to-our-ribs dishes, and she’d plan ahead–cooking loads of it in a giant pot on a Monday, letting the pot sit in the chilly mudroom for a day or two so the flavors would become even more intense, and serving it later in the week. She would bring the pot to the table using potholders that one of us had woven at summer camp, and trill “Ta da!” to great applause.
When my mother and stepfather became empty nesters and downsized to a smaller house, she never made her famous stuffed cabbage again. And when she sank into dementia, she didn’t remember making it at all. “I cooked?” she asked. “No, dear. You must be mistaken.”
Before her mind went blank, she gave me the recipe, in longhand on a sheet of yellow legal paper folded into little squares that she tucked into the palm of my hand, as if she were a spy passing along secret codes. In a way, she was. “Here,” she said. “For whenever you need to calm an angry mob.”
Jane Heller is a bestselling author of 14 novels, nine optioned for film and television, along with two books of nonfiction and a forthcoming memoir about her relationship with her mother. Her website is janeheller.com.
Mom's Famous Stuffed Cabbage
3 1/2 lb. ground beef
1 c. Uncle Ben’s white rice
salt and pepper to taste
2 large heads of cabbage
2 16-oz. cans tomato sauce
2 cans Campbell’s tomato soup
1 15-oz. can sauerkraut (or fresh if available)
handful of brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Place ground beef in a bowl, adding the uncooked rice and a little cold water to soften.
Season with salt and pepper.
In a large pot of boiling water, parboil the cabbages until the leaves are soft and pliable.
Allow to cool, then cut out the cores and separate the leaves.
For each cabbage leaf, roll a handful of ground beef into a small oval and place inside the leaf.
Fold the ends of the leaf to cover the meat, “like a little package.”
Place all the beef packages in a Dutch oven or heavy pot.
Add the tomato sauce and tomato soup.
Drain the sauerkraut, pressing out all the juice, and add to the pot, sprinkling over the rolled packages.
Add the brown sugar.
Cover the pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for about 3 hours.
When cool, add more salt, pepper, and brown sugar to taste.
Serves a crowd.