Sweet and sour stuffed cabbage to celebrate the harvest

A cabbage leaf ready to roll.

A cabbage leaf ready to roll.

HOW CAN SOMETHING that smells so awful taste so delicious? I’m talking about cooked cabbage, that cliche of novels and movies of immigrants in tenement houses. Specifically stuffed cabbage, this week’s recipe. I will be the first to admit that the scent of cooking cabbage is not up there with fresh bread and popcorn as an enticing aroma. Cooking it as stuffed cabbage tempers the problem a bit, because you also get the bouquet of cooking meat and tomato sauce. But don’t be put off by the fear of cooking cabbage! The end result is well worth it.

Before the recipe, let me tell you why I am coking it this week.

In the Jewish world we are preparing for Sukkot (usually translated as “Tabernacles” or “Booths”), a lovely seven-day festival (eight days outside of Israel) that is known as “Zeman Simchateinu,” the season of our joy. It starts this year at sundown on Wednesday. The festival has a dual purpose. It celebrates the fall harvest, and it also commemorates the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.

Sukkot is a plural word (the singular is “sukkah”) that sounds like “sue COAT.” You might also hear it pronounced in Yiddish as “SOOK iss.” A sukkah can be built of anything—wood, plastic, canvas—but the roof has to be made from plant material without any nails or other metal fasteners—for example wood slats covered with pine branches, corn stalks or reed mats. You should be able to see the sky through it. In Israel, where the rainy season hasn’t yet started and it’s still warm, it’s not hard to eat and sleep in a flimsy hut with a partly-open roof. In Michigan, and anywhere else in the northern part of the United States, it can be difficult, especially when the holiday falls in October as it usually does.

When our kids were younger, they’d often declare their intention to sleep in the sukkah. Fine, we’d say, getting out the sleeping bags, foam pads and flashlights. There may have been a year—maybe two—when a child actually made it through the night. Usually the good intentions lasted until the wee hours of the morning, when they’d slink back into the warm house.

(Care to read more? This week, Debra Darvick is sharing a chapter on Sukkot from her book, This Jewish Life.)

Zayda Joe Lewis gets help decorating the sukkah.

Zayda Joe Lewis gets help decorating the sukkah.

Kid-centered decorations

The kids always enjoyed decorating the sukkah. We’d hang up their artwork and the paper chains, along with plastic fruit (real fruit rots too fast and attracts bees). We were delighted last year when our granddaughter visited from New Jersey and helped her Zayda decorate the sukkah! We add twinkly Christmas lights—bought at deep discount one year in January. We even have some lights shaped like chili peppers that I bought from the Lillian Vernon cataglog. I covet my friends’ lights that are shaped like bunches of grapes.

Plastic Thai fruit for sukkah decorations.

Plastic Thai fruit for sukkah decorations.

My friends Mandy Garver and Allen Wolf have a unique collection of plastic fruit in their sukkah. They spent two and a half years in Thailand, as employees for Ford Motor Company, and brought back a nice collection of plastic dragonfruit, jackfruit, durian and other weird-to-us southeast Asian edibles.

Fall harvest foods are popular at Sukkot. These include sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage, a recipe developed by Jews in Russia, Poland and other Eastern European countries. Some call the meat-stuffed cabbage rolls holishkas. My Grandmom Anna, who was born in Russia, called them prockas. This is the way she used to make them.

Tips for making stuffed cabbage

Lots of recipes tell you to boil the head of cabbage and then separate the leaves. This is a mess, because you need a huge pot, and then you have to handle a hot head of cabbage. Others say to cut the leaves off the head of cabbage and parboil them. This is also unsatisfactory, because it’s very hard to get intact leaves off a raw head of cabbage—and then you still have to deal with hot cabbage leaves dripping hot water all over your kitchen.

I have a better way, which I learned from my Aunt Lili. The only drawback is it takes some planning. At least a week before the holiday, buy your cabbage, wrap it well in foil, and stick it in the freezer. After a few days  take it from the freezer and put it in your fridge. A block of frozen cabbage takes a long time to defrost, so allow at least five days! You can speed up the process by defrosting it on your counter, but you’ll still need a day or two. Put the frozen cabbage into a large bowl or deep platter, because a lot of water will seep out as it defrosts.

When the cabbage is completely defrosted, cut out the core and the leaves will just fall away, nice and soft and ready for rolling.

VIDEO: EASIER HANDLING OF CABBAGE LEAVES

You can see what I mean in this little video. Try to ignore the videographer (my husband) telling me to look at the camera and smile.

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