Monday, October 20, 2014

Ode to a Crockpot - Sweet and Sour Stuffed Cabbage

I recently read an Op Ed piece in the New York Times, where the writer expressed her feelings about the societal expectation of preparing daily home-cooked meals for children.  She was indignant, offended, and darn near angry.  After all, coming home after a long day at work doesn't leave time to whip up a pot roast, especially when the children have after school activities, homework, baths, and all that jazz.  She recognized that somewhere in that time period between the end of the school day and bedtime, the kids had to eat dinner, but expressed her longing for the days when the First Lady was not keeping pizza off the school lunch menus, and it was okay to do your dinner food shopping in the drive-thru at McDonald's.  The writer also expressed her not-inconsiderable feminist frustration that here we are in the 21st century, and mothers, i.e. females, were expected to cook for their spawn.

As the late President Richard Nixon would state, let me say this about that:  first of all, I'm a feminist - a real feminist, someone who faced blatant gender discrimination in the seventies, when I first started working, and had to push hard to make progress, failed in the face of a male-dominated industry, and then applied to law school to try to level the playing field.  I've been ready for Hillary for a long time, and furious that countries like India, Israel, and Great Britain have been led by powerful women executives, while we have not.  

Next, Michelle Obama needs to get out of the school cafeteria.  There is nothing wrong with pizza on Wednesdays or fried chicken on Monday.  It's all about balance and moderation. (Sometimes I still dream about those English muffin pizzas on the Wednesday lunch menu at Lawrence High School.) Third, I am firmly opposed to children having too many activities that eat up all their (as well as their parent's) spare time after school and every weekend.  Pick two, and let the kids have time to be kids. 

Fourth is that you don't have to cook every night.  True, my grandmother (she-who-raised-me) cooked a three course meal every night, but she was another generation, a stay-at-home wife and mother, and besides, the kitchen was always closed on the weekends.  I don't cook every night, in fact, I almost never cook during the week, because I've always been a working mother.  My schedule is the opposite of my grandmother's - I do all my major food shopping and cooking on the weekend, pack everything up in those ubiquitous aluminum pans that my cousin Steve Schneider likes to tease me about, and load up the refrigerator with enough food to feed my family for at least a week.  My son, now an adult, likes to eat late, so long after his dad and I are done with dinner, he pulls a goodly number of those tin pans out of the fridge, and fills up a plate with whatever combination of cooked comestibles strikes his fancy, and - are you ready for it? - he reheats it in the microwave.  

Admittedly, I think spending at least one of my days off from work frying artichoke hearts and basting chickens is a big treat, but I got the sense that the op ed author would rather scratch out her eyeballs with a fork.  For her and other parents who either don't like to cook, don't have the time or the talent to cook, don't have another parent in the home who is willing to pick up part of the cooking responsibility, and who can't afford decent take-out every night, there is, of course, always the last, best hope for a delicious and easy hot meal (and the reason for today's post)- the crockpot.  The crockpot is my go-to device on those occasions when I do plan to cook during the week, as well as one of the appliances I rely on during my weekend cooking marathons.  

This, my friends, is a crockpot, AKA a slow cooker.  This little beauty and I made our acquaintance in the fall of 1976, and we've been together ever since.  She is so old - like me - that her inner crock is not removable.  I think she is about 4 quarts, an adequate size for chili and soup, but not large enough for a couple of racks of baby back ribs or a nice big pot roast.  Until recently, I also had a round 5 quart cooker with a removable crock, but after almost as many years of faithful service, it passed on to that great appliance junk yard in the sky.  I am in the market for a replacement, and also checking out some 8 quart crocks, in case I ever feel the need to feed the population of a small city.  In the meantime, I rely most frequently on this 6 quart oval, which has two crocks, one of which is divided into two compartments.  Very nice when I want to serve cocktail meatballs AND little smokies, or two kinds of soup.

That is a lovely piece of stuffed veal breast in the crock, and by the time you read this, I will have posted that recipe.  For today, however, I am using both crockpots to create a relatively easy version of my grandmother's stuffed cabbage.  It can be prepared in stages, if you prefer, and I'll show how using the crockpot takes the stress out of assembling all of the components.  

To me, the biggest stress factor has always been the cabbage.  Either I have to deal with a huge pot of boiling water, trying to remove the rock-hard core of the cabbage so I can dip it in and out of the water to loosen the leaves (imagine cutting yourself and scalding yourself at the same time) or I have to plan three days ahead and put the cabbage in the freeze for at least overnight, and then let it defrost in the refrigerator and hope the leaves are soft enough to remove, stuff, and roll.

Instead, I took a nice big head of cabbage, placed it core-side down into my 6 quart crockpot, first cutting off about half an inch across the bottom so it fit under the lid.  I then added water about a third of a way up the sides, covered the crockpot, and cooked the cabbage head on low for 6 hours. When it's done, carefully move the cabbage to a large bowl, core-side up, and let it cool down enough to handle.  With a long thin knife, cut out the core and begin to carefully remove the leaves, placing them on paper towels to drain.  You will need 12 large yellow leaves, but do not discard the remaining cabbage just yet.

Here is my grandmother's recipe for stuffed cabbage, adapted for the crockpot:

1 large head of cabbage, cooked in the crockpot to yield at least 12 large leaves

For the filling:
2 pounds ground beef
1/2 cup uncooked long-grain converted rice (Uncle Ben's)
about 1/4 cup grated onion (grate the onion right into the mixing bowl)
1 extra large egg
granulated garlic and onion powder, to taste
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Combine the filling ingredients in a large bowl and mix together by hand.  Divide the filling into 12 equal portions, shaped like logs.

For the sauce:
2 large Vidalia onions, chopped into large pieces
canola or olive oil
2 cans of Campbell's condensed tomato soup
3 soup cans water
1-8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 sauce can water
1-6 oz. can tomato paste
kosher salt, ground black pepper, and granulated garlic to taste
3-4 tablespoons sugar
granulated citric acid (sour salt)

At the same time you start the cabbage, spray or oil the inside of a 4 quart crock, add the onions, drizzle on the oil, cover and cook for 6 hours on low.  Stir occasionally, and watch those onions caramelize without spattering oil all over the top of your stove.  When the onions are done, add all of the remaining sauce ingredients except for the citric acid.  Cover and cook on high for 2 hours.  After the first hour, taste the sauce and adjust your seasoning, including sweetness.  Then add about 1/2 teaspoon of the citric acid, cook the sauce another half hour, then taste again.  You want the perfect balance of sweet to sour.  Just keep in mind that the citric acid should be used sparingly, and take your time in achieving this balance.

Take a cabbage leaf and with a sharp knife, carefully shave off the thick part of the rib.  Repeat for all of the leaves.  This will make it easier for them to be rolled.  Then place one portion of meat on each leaf, and roll it up like a burrito or an eggroll. Set the finished rolls aside.

Rinse out the 6 quart crockpot.  Ladle some of the sauce on the bottom of the crock.  Break up some of the remaining cabbage into smaller pieces and place on top of the sauce.  Add a single layer of cabbage rolls, placing them seam-side down.  Ladle on enough sauce to almost cover them, then place the remaining cabbage rolls on top, crosswise from the first layer.  I fit 5 rolls on the first layer and 7 on the second.  Use some more of the broken up cabbage to tuck in between the rolls so that they fit snuggly.  

Finally, top with the rest of the sauce and more of the broken up cabbage pieces.  Cover and cook on low for 5-6 hours, or until the meat filling registers 165 degrees and the cabbage is very tender. I set my crockpot to cook for 5 hours, after which it automatically switched to the "keep warm" setting.  When I woke up this morning, it had been on "keep warm" for 2 hours, and was perfect.  My house smelled so good, I almost ate stuffed cabbage for breakfast!

Serve the stuffed cabbage directly from the crockpot or carefully move to a baking dish for later use.

Cooked stuffed cabbage reheats well and also freezes well. Just remember to place a piece of wax paper between the food and aluminum foil, if you are going to use the foil to cover the pan.  This recipe serves 12 as an appetizer, or 4-6 as an entree.

Try it, you'll like it - then leave a comment.  Love some feedback!

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