One of the book podcasters I follow recommended Bronsky’s latest book, Baba Dunja’s Last Love. When I looked it up on Goodreads, I found that another person I follow loved this one, so I decided to give it a try. The protagonist, (with an emphasis on “agonist”) Rosa, is living with her daughter, Sulfia, and her husband, Kalganow in a small apartment in Russia. As the title indicates, Rosa was proud of her Tartar heritage and made no secret of it– unlike her husband, who wanted to assimilate completely into Russian culture. Rosa was iron-willed with a healthy ego, constantly “advising” her daughter, to such an extreme that Sulfia had to completely avoid her mother in order to maintain her sense of self. You see, Rosa was disappointed that Sulfia wasn’t more like her. When Sulfia’s daughter, Aminat, was born, Rosa took charge of the infant as though it was her own. An attractive baby, Aminat grew to be quite a handful, despite her good looks. The novel details the struggles between Rosa and Sulfia, Rosa and Aminat, Rosa and Kalganow. And they are just the people who loved her! As bossy and blunt as she was, she had an indomitable spirit, a practiced self-confidence and a no-nonsense view of the world that was hard to argue with.
THE BEAUTY: When Rosa finally saw Sulfia for who she really was, that was beautiful. Sulfia had so many friends because she always knew when someone was hurting, when someone needed something, and when to insert herself into their life. She needed very little herself, her joy was in helping others. When Rosa recognized all this, she, too, saw the beauty that was Sulfia!
THE FOOD: When Sulfia first acted out against her mother, Rosa indignantly asked Kalganow what he was going to do about it. He was eating stuffed cabbage at the time, and took a moment before answering. When he did finally answer he said they must hide Sulfia’s absence, or risk losing their apartment. That did nothing to appease his already livid wife, but if his stuffed cabbage was as good as this recipe, he was a contented man.
1 cabbage head (3-4 lbs.)
1 lb ground chuck (london broil, butcher ground for me)
1 lb ground Italian sausage
1 med to large white onion chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 T olive oil
1 or 2 eggs
1 C cooked rice
½ C Italian bread crumbs
1 family size can Campbell’s Tomato Soup (23 oz)
3 oz tomato paste
pinch of sugar
1 tsp salt adjust to taste
1 T pepper adjust to taste
3 C white vinegar
Preheat oven to 350º degrees F.
Core the cabbage by removing the stem.
Fill a large stock pot with enough water to cover the cabbage. Bring the water to a boil and add the white vinegar. Put the cabbage in the boiling water, stem side down, return to a gentle boil and cook for 10 minutes. Remove cabbage head from pot and put in a colander to drain and cool. Save the water in the pot to use if the center leaves of the cabbage are not fully pliable.
When the leaves have cooled enough to handle, take a paring knife and shave the vein that runs down the center of the leaf. You’re just cutting off the top portion of the vein, and not creating a hole in the leaf. This vein is very tough and needs to be pared down. It will make it much easier to roll the meat mixture in the cabbage leaf. Continue to do this until you remove as many leaves from the cabbage as you can. If the center leaves need more cooking, return them to the pot and boil until tender.
In a saucepan, heat 1 T olive oil and saute the onions until transparent and slightly brown. Add the minced garlic and stir for another minute or so until the garlic blooms.
In a large mixing bowl combine the ground chuck and sausage and mix thoroughly. Add the onion and garlic mixture, egg, rice, bread crumbs and finally add the salt and pepper. Make certain to thoroughly combine the ingredients together. The “meat” mixture will be a similar consistency to meatloaf. It should be nice and moist. If it seems dry, add an additional egg.
Lay a cabbage leaf down on a flat surface. Take some of the meat mixture and form into a large meatball. You may make these as large or as small as you want. Place the meatball in the center of the cabbage leaf. Wrap the cabbage leaf around the meat mixture. Fold the leaf over to cover the meat, then tuck in the sides and continue rolling until the leaf completely envelopes the meat mixture. Place the stuffed cabbage in a roaster with the wrapped edges down. Repeat this process placing the rolls next to each other, until all of the meat mixture is used up.
Mix tomato soup, tomato paste and a pinch of sugar. Pour tomato soup mixture over the top of the stuffed cabbage and reserve a small amount to be used in the next step.
If you have cabbage leaves remaining, cover the entire top of the stuffed cabbage in the roaster. Pour remaining tomato soup mixture on top of the cabbage leaves that cover the stuffed cabbage. This step will help steam the rolls that lie below and therefore will keep them nice and moist. Put a lid on top of the roaster and bake for 1½ hours.
Allow the stuffed cabbage to sit for 15 minutes before serving.
To freeze rolls for later, allow them to cool then put dinner size portions in freezer bags. Pour a little of the tomato juice into each bag and freeze.
To reheat place frozen rolls and their frozen tomato juice into a saucepan, cover, and simmer until heated through. Probably about 30 minutes. It’ll go faster if the cabbage rolls are thawed before reheating. Alternatively, place the thawed rolls into a casserole dish, pouring the tomato juice on top. Cover the pan and bake in a 350º degree oven for 30-45 minutes, until heated through.