My mother taught me to cook. My two earliest memories of being in the kitchen as more than an observer were when she had me preparing roast chicken. Salt and pepper it inside and out, shove a quartered onion up it, put it in a pan, stick it in the oven at 375 for an hour or so, and when the leg wiggles, the chicken is done.
The other memory is when I made dinner for my dad. My mother was away and that left me in the dominant female position, which I fulfilled with a meal heavy on food types that I liked, canned green beans for one, but also a new-to-me product, Cool Whip. I hate to tell you how long ago this was; suffice to say, Cool Whip did not start out in those cute little tubs in the freezer. It originally came in packets that you had to mix up. I thought it was, well, cool. So canned green beans and Cool Whip--even I knew that something was missing, so I mixed several different colors of Cool Whip. Blue Cool Whip as meat, yellow Cool Whip as potatoes, and red Cool Whip as salad. The green was taken care of by our canned beans, remember. My father was a peach, and I believe he cleaned his plate and may have asked for seconds.
All of this was a preamble to a lifetime reputation as one hell of a cook. Thus, I felt no fear when faced with the Stuffed Cabbage. I found two recipes, one in the vintage Good Housekeeping that my sister gave me when I got married [the first time] and the other in Joan Nathan's Jewish Holiday Cookbook. I used the first the only other time I made Stuffed Cabbage, which was back when I was married [the first time] and had an unfortunate mishap with the stuffing bowl and the dish washing soap, which tainted forever that recipe with the tang of lemon Palmolive. That being the case, I elected to go with Joan Nathan.
Nathan's recipe is unique, or so it seems to me, in two ways. First, rather than lemon, she uses frozen lemonade. Second, she recommends that one freeze the cabbage head for two days prior to making the rolls because this makes it easier to fold the cabbage. I followed her recipe to the T--almost. The only part I didn't do: Miss B is a vegetarian, and thus my Stuffed Cabbage had to be meat less. I substituted some product called Chorn (or that may be the name of the village in Russia that my grandfather came from). Whatever--this stuff is made of egg whites and other things and is crumbled up to look just like hamburger meat that's been cooked. I mixed the fake hamburger with the onion and garlic and rice that Nathan called for--and it didn't smell bad, but it didn't smell good either. Although how fake meat would/should smell is beyond me. Still, I must have had a frisson of concern because I did note the odd odor.
But I persisted and went on to the prepping of the cabbage. This called for defrosting the thing over night (can you see how long this is taking on the shetl--two days to freeze, one day to defrost, and this is just the cabbage we're talking about). Then I cut the core out of it and, as instructed, began to separate and spread the cabbage leaves out. Nathan is right; the formerly crisp, sturdy cabbage leaves were now, well, limp. They had taken on an odd coloration, sort of translucent, but with a vaguely plastic look. Kinda like they food samples that some Asian restaurants put in their windows. It's food, but yet not food.
However, they were quite easy to work with, and I began the stuffing processing with a kind of joy. I was channeling my mother; my hands just seemed to know how they should go, and it was a kind of Zen moment for me. Soon, I had a pot full of little cabbage rolls. I meant to stop at this point and take a picture so this could be an illustrated tale, but I poured the tomato sauce over them before I remembered that. So, sadly, my story is text only. I put the covered pot in the oven at 350 for four hours, as Nathan said to, and walked away, feeling proud.
You all know where this is going, don't you. I don't have to drag it out and detail the odor of burning tomato sauce, turning the temp down, more odor, more temp down, until after two hours or so, I couldn't stand it and pulled the pot out. Already I had some crispy critters in there, but I could remember times my mother had burned things and she just left the burnt parts and served up the still-good middles. So all was okay, I could still feel pride, and we would eat our Stuffed Cabbage for dinner.
Even up to the point when I served myself a portion of the Cabbage from the pot, I was still walking in my mother's shoes. I could feel myself holding the spoon as she had (and, truth be told, it was her spoon) and plating the Stuffed Cabbage as she had and taken a forkful as she once did and--.
These were not my mother's Stuffed Cabbage. I hope they weren't Joan Nathan's Stuffed Cabbage either. They were, in a word, awful. I don't think it was just the fake meat, although that probably contributed (Note: can fake meat go bad, because this stuff smelled rank). The frozen cabbage certainly contributed. It occurred to me that the chemical breakdown that renders the cabbage malleable may also make it spoiled. Whatever, my Stuffed Cabbage were gag-worthy. I had D try them, just to make sure I wasn't prejudiced by having dealt with all the ingredients, and he said, "it's not often that I can't eat something...."
He went out for hamburgers, and I stuffed my Stuffed Cabbage down the disposal. It was, to say the least, a chastening experience.