A Stuffed Cabbage Recipe That’s Saved on WhatsApp
Recipe Roots: Vilnius > Tel Aviv > Ramat Hasharon, Israel > Tel Aviv > New York City
Shared by Arik and Dafna Bareket
For many Jewish cooks we’ve spoken to since we launched the Jewish Food Society, family recipes are almost intuited, learned by spending time in the kitchen at a grandmother or mother’s apron strings. But, for Arik and his daughter Dafna Bareket, recipes are transmitted in writing — and sometimes over WhatsApp. The collection of family recipes, which include cholent, homemade gefilte fish, and stuffed cabbage come from Arik’s Polish mother Pnina.
It wasn’t until Arik reached his 40s that he started to cook for the first time in his life. Driven to learn his mother’s recipes, he sat at her kitchen table as she cooked and dictated the directions to him and he wrote. A naval architect and engineer by training, his notes and cooking are precise.
Now 83, Arik has been making Pnina’s recipes for 40 years and still, Dafna says, he looks at his carefully written recipe every time he makes one of her dishes like this stuffed cabbage the two shared with us for our archive.
Neither Arik nor Dafna know where Pnina learned this recipe, but the flavors appear to come from her childhood in Vilnius, which was part of Poland when she was growing up. In 1935, in her early 20s, Pnina left Vilnius without her family to move to British Mandate Palestine with a Zionist group. Her family that stayed behind perished in the Holocaust. “She was the only survivor,” Dafna explains, and Pnina never spoke of them to Arik.
By the time Dafna was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, the recipes from savta Pnina, as she was known in the family, had already passed to Arik as Pnina became too old to make them. Her recipes were a part of his repertoire for Shabbat, never mid-week, cooking. “My mom always laughs at my dad,” Dafna says. “His cooking is a three day process. On the first day he needs to go to the market, on the second day he preps,” and on the third he cooks.
Savta Pnina’s recipes are for the dishes “I grew up hating. I wouldn’t touch these things,” Dafna explains. “I think, only at an older age, did I start to appreciate these recipes.” A vegetarian since she was 14, Dafna started to make her own renditions of Pnina’s cholent and stuffed cabbage as a young mom in Tel Aviv. Despite her father’s disapproval of her vegetarianism, she still likes to have Arik in the kitchen with her when she cooks to make sure the recipe is being made properly.
She moved to New York City a year ago, so today Arik’s involvement in her kitchen is largely virtual. “I constantly WhatsApp my dad” for Pnina’s stuffed cabbage recipe, Dafna says. He sends her back a photo of the recipe he wrote down 40 years ago sitting at Pnina’s kitchen table. “I’m just like him,” she adds. “Everytime, I look at the recipe.”
Pnina's Stuffed Cabbage
Time: 1 hour + 1 hour 15 minutes cooking time
3 tablespoons neutral oil, like canola, sunflower, or grapeseed
4-5 medium onions, chopped
1 large green cabbage
2 cups white rice
1 lb. ground beef
1 small can (6 oz.) tomato paste, divided
Juice from 1-2 lemons, divided
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt, divided
1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 large can (28 oz.) crushed tomatoes
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
2. Heat the oil in a medium pan and sauté the onions over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and caramelized, about 30-40 minutes.
3. While the onions cook, remove the core from the cabbage. Place it in the pot of water and boil until the leaves soften and start to peel away from the head, about 15-20 minutes (this will depend on the size of your cabbage).
4. Bring 4 cups of water to boil in a small saucepan. Stir the rice into the boiling water. As soon as the water returns to a boil, strain and rinse the rice. Set aside.
5. Remove the cabbage from the pot and let cool slightly until it can be handled. Carefully, peel the leaves off shaving the base of the stem vertically with a paring knife to remove the hard triangular rib. Reserve the trimmings for the pot. You can return the cabbage to the pot of water for a few minutes if you find that the inner leaves become more stubborn to remove when trying to peel. You will need 12-14 leaves.
6. Make the filling: In a medium bowl, combine the ground beef, rice, and ¾ of the carmelized onions (Arik says it’s best to mix with your hands). Add the eggs, ½ of the can of tomato paste, the juice from ½ a lemon, sugar, salt and pepper and mix until well combined.
7. To assemble: Take one of the cabbage leaves and, depending on its size, place ½ - ¾ cup of the filling near the rib end of the leaf. Fold the left and right sides in, then fold the base of the leaf up over the filling and roll tightly towards the top outer edge of the leaf to form a rectangular package. Place the wrapped leaf seam-side down on a platter while you prepare the remaining leaves. Continue with the rest of the leaves until all of the filling has been used up.
8. Place the remaining onion, any trimmings from the cabbage stems, the remaining tomato paste, the juice from ½ a lemon, the can of crushed tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper in a large pot and bring to a boil. Layer the stuffed cabbages over the the sauce and top with any remaining loose cabbage leaves. Add water to just cover the contents of the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered for 1 hour. Taste and adjust for seasoning as it cooks, adding additional lemon juice, sugar, salt or pepper to taste.
9. Remove the lid and cook until sauce reaches desired thickness, about 15-20 minutes more.
10. Serve immediately with sauce drizzled on top.