Middle-Eastern/Ukrainian Cabbage Rolls

Five days into January and we were already out of new ideas, inspiration or resolve.

What. Kind. Of. Filling? asked The Librarian wearily. She was, as usual, in charge of perogies for the neo-Ukrainian Christmas Eve (old calendar) Dinner to be held on January 7 (which is actually old calendar Christmas Day).

I. Have. No. Idea. I coughed into the phone, from my post in the couch, where I hoped for a speedy recovery from a bad back and a cold. And. What. About. The. Cabbage. Rolls?

Because if the truth be told I’m not so fond of old school cabbage rolls with their soggy filling and slimy cabbage.

Librarian sighed into the phone and then sneezed, having just recovered from a nasty bug herself.

We hung up and I went back to 3 back-to-back episodes of What Not To Wear, ginger tea, Hall’s Menth-o-Lyptus, Kleenex, Benadryl, Sudafed, chocolate, and (this from an article in NOW), hot milk with turmeric.

I’m pretty sure it was that vile turmeric cocktail that cured me.

The next day, I was back in the game. I downloaded a recipe for “Vaguely Middle Eastern Cabbage Rolls”. I sent Librarian a recipe for roasted yam perogies from The Rebar Cookbook. I organized Gay Ukrainian Prof and Gay Schoolteacher with their food assignments.

We’ll call the results Nouvelle Ukrainian Cuisine.

Reader (are you there?), it was the best alternative Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner ever. Since nothing can improve upon our mothers’ or grandmothers’ cooking, we sometimes have to claim our own culinary territory.

For the first time, I felt free to improvise. I could feel my mother and grandmother looking over my shoulder in wonderment and dismay as I mixed lentils, raisins, and that fierce, healing turmeric into the cabbage rolls’ rice filling.

Across town, Librarian and Hair Dude stuffed roasted yam and brie into one set of perogoes, potatoes and cheddar into another. A few blocks north, Gay Ukrainian Prof did the prep for Black Beans with Cilantro, a simulacrum of his Baba’s more prosaic Broad Beans with Garlic. Over on Roncesvalles, Gay Schoolteacher was busy purchasing Polish torte and cheesecake to replace the dried fruit compote that is the Ukrainian norm.

Before dinner (further transgression, for this is traditionally a meatless feast), Gay Ukrainian Prof passed around his family’s home-butchered and cured moose meat kubasa (garlic sausage), as fine a charcuterie as that provided by the hippest restaurants in town.

The cabbage rolls (topped with wild mushroom sauce) were exquisite. The perogies were declared to be as good as Gay Ukrainian Prof’s Baba’s. (Actually, they were unbelievably delicious).

With ice cold vodka, we toasted our Babas. We toasted to friendship. We toasted to the dead (it’s a Ukrainian thing).

Having the courage to try something new. That can be hard. Far easier to stay in one place, clinging to an eroded piece of land.

What new things, food-wise or life-wise, are you going to try in this brave new year?

Vaguely Middle Eastern Vegetarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

1 cup basmati rice

¼ teaspoon turmeric

1 cup lentils

¾ cup raisins (may use currants, raisins, or apricots)

¾ cup toasted almonds, coarsely chopped

1 lg. onion, diced

1 lg. green or red bell pepper, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 lg. cabbage

1/2 (28 oz.) cans tomatoe juice

4 teaspoons dried basil

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Salt and pepper to taste

Bring 2 cups of water to boil, adding the rice and turmeric. Return to a boil, cover and simmer for 25 minutes. Cook the lentils in 3 cups of boiling water until soft. Saute the onion, pepper, and garlic in olive oil. In a large bowl, combine the sauteed vegetables, rice, lentils, almonds and raisins. Fill each cabbage leaf with about 1/2 to 3/4 cup filling, beginning at the thick end of the leaf. Begin to fold this over, folding the edges in as you go to make a neat roll. Place the rolls in one or two casseroles, covering with the sauce.

To prepare the sauce, combine the tomatoes, vinegar, basil and cinnamon in a large saucepan. Adjust the cinnamon/basil mix until it’s hard to taste either seasoning alone, and then add the salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Bake the cabbage rolls covered at 350 degrees, 45-60 minutes.

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