The other day, my friend Caron and I must have been talking about Russia and family and when I mentioned that I loved Stuffed Cabbage rolls, I asked her what she called them. She answered “Stuffed Cabbage” which cracked me up (I don’t know if she knows how funny her dry answer was to me…Ha!). I was trying to see if she called them Haluptsi, Galumpkis or one of the other similar sounding names I’ve heard for these Russian/Eastern European delicacy. We always spelled it Haloopsy and I’ve eaten it since I was knee-high to a grasshopper (where’d that saying come from anyway?). That’s me on the left with Big Sister Terry.
When we reminisce about fond childhood memories, it’s not unusual for the memory to be better than the actual experience. However, there is one that I’m positive is not skewed or distorted. That would be the memory of going to “Aunt” Olga’s house, nestled among the agricultural fields in Imperial County, in what seemed like a magical spot of solitude out in the middle of nowhere. We were invited for Sunday dinner many, many times growing up. “Aunt” Olga was not really our aunt. She was a nurse at Calexico Hospital, a descendant of Russian immigrants, who was a neighbor to my parents when Mom was pregnant with my older sister. She was present at the birth of my older sister and helped my Mom during her second pregnancy (me!). Both my parents and the Himes moved away from that street where they made their acquaintance and they continued to be lifelong friends.
My late Aunt Olga (and her husband, Uncle Albee) were unique. If I tried to describe Aunt Olga so you could visualize her, you’d have to picture this tall woman (probably close to 5’10”) with piercing blue eyes who had the added mystique of missing her middle finger on one of her hands (I forget which hand now…). Aunt Olga was one of those people who got just inches from your face when you were talking to her directly (you all know people like that, right?) and she would wag that hand up and down for emphasis in a kind of wave that would keep my eyes glued to it in spite of my best efforts to be polite and NOT stare! She used to joke that she lost it in some dramatic way but I think the true story was that a dog bit it off and there was no saving it. Who knows? (ADDED NOTE: I just found a picture of Aunt Olga. Notice how Uncle Frank has his eyes cast downward? Ha! He was trying to not look at the hand either! LOL!) Now, Uncle Albee was a sweetheart. Big, horn-rimmed glasses dominating his face and his bald head with the small rim of hair that just made him all the more endearing. He delighted in whistling just like the birds surrounding his property. You’d hear the tweet of a bird that you thought was near and perplexed, turn around to see him laughing as he’d tricked you YET again!
Their “ranch” out in the country was designed with a “great room” with all the bedrooms and the kitchen surrounding this “hub”. Behind the BIG sectional couch in the corner was a box. This box was FILLED with toys and we would run into the house, give her our perfunctory hugs, kisses and greetings and then run to the room to grab the “play box” and dump it into the middle of the floor. We kept ourselves busy for hours as they visited with my parents in the kitchen, always the headquarters for all things important. I’ll never forget the time we first walked in and Aunt Olga was still cleaning tomato sauce off the walls and ceiling. Her pressure cooker had EXPLODED (!) and there were tomato bits all over the place. Nonplussed, she already had another pot of cabbage rolls on the stove simmering away!
Aunt Olga also had a Great Dane and I think we have pictures of one of us actually getting a ride on this beautiful creature. I think their dog before the Great Dane was the sister to the Black Cocker Spaniel we had when I was just a toddler. We have pictures of us in our “swimming pool” (really…just a metal tub) with the dogs sitting there watching over us. They also had a croquet set that was set up outside (remember those?). We would go out there and expend a lot of pent-up energy playing a game where everyone was pretty much equal in their skill level. We would laugh and laugh as someone tried time and time again to get that darn croquet ball to hit the darn stick at the end. Oh, to go back to one of those Sundays again. We hadn’t a care in the world!
When it was finally time to sit around the BIG table in her country kitchen, we would be fidgeting in our seats as we anticipated the delicious feast that was in store for us. Aunt Olga would always use a big white tureen (much like the one in my photograph) and a HUGE bowl of mashed potatoes. What kid doesn’t like mashed potatoes? Hers were always so creamy and flavorful and I think, after all these years, I’ve mastered the art of making great mashed potatoes.
I hope you try making this at least once. When Aunt Olga gave me the recipe when I was newly married back in 1979, she recited the ingredient list and when I asked her how much salt and pepper to add, she told me to just pick off a chunk and taste it. “Eww!” I said, “RAW?” She said, “Aww, it won’t HURT you! I’ve been doing it for YEARS!” Well, even though I knew she was a nurse, I just couldn’t bring myself to take a bite of raw hamburger and instead, I came up with an acceptable measurement.
When I made these series of photos, I was trying to quickly make some pictures to give to my sons to give to their (someday) wives. They love this dish and I’m sure they will be reminiscing someday with THEIR kids about the fun times we had sitting around our table eating this wonderful dish. Thanks Aunt Olga!
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls – Haloopsy
2 lbs hamburger (no more than 15% fat)
1 c. cooked white rice
1/4 lb. mild pork sausage
1 small white onion, finely diced (about ¼ cup)
1 clove garlic, minced
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 large head cabbage ( or more if you like)
1 large can diced tomatoes
1 16 oz. can tomato sauce (divided)
Cut a good portion of the core out of the cabbage. Parboil/steam the cabbage, core down, in a big pot. Slowly peel off and separate leaves and set aside on a plate.
Mix the meat and other ingredients together in a big bowl. Using a large spoon, put a dollop of meat mixture inside the leaf and fold the cabbage up around the meat and place seam down in a big Dutch Oven. Pour some diced tomatoes into the bottom of pot. You can also lay down some of the inner leaves of the cabbage that remained if you’d like.
Put a layer of cabbage rolls in the pot. Cover with more tomatoes and 8 oz (1 cup) of regular tomato sauce. Repeat layer. Top with remaining tomatoes. Cook over a simmering temperature for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Gently lift cabbage balls and move around in the pan to prevent scorching halfway through cooking time. You can add a little water if your dish is becoming too dry. Be careful not to scorch the cabbage. Serve with mashed potatoes.