Monday, 21 June 2010

Wrapping It Up

I learned how to make stuffed cabbage rolls in Miami, in the kitchenette of a woman called Ruth. Ruth was in her sixties, recently widowed, and a little lonely, as I was. She showed me how to steam the cabbage first, then peel off the leaves, being careful not to tear. We stuffed them with a mixture of beef, rice, onions, and seasonings. Each cabbage roll was then placed seam-side down in a heavy-bottomed skillet, then topped with tomato sauce simmered with brown sugar, carrots, parsley and raisins. We sat in Ruth's kitchenette and ate the steaming cabbage rolls on a rainy November day. They were the first thing besides Kraft macaroni-and-cheese dinners I learned how to cook, and I couldn't believe how easy they were to make.

I rolled my first sushi in a Victorian flat in San Francisco. My friend Atsuko showed me how to season the boiled rice with vinegar and sugar, how to scoop it into a flat, shallow wooden dish and fan it until it cooled, then spread it over a sheet of nori, add a variety of condiments -- egg pancake cut into ribbons, shiitake mushrooms and carrots cooked in soy sauce, broth and sugar, and finely chopped strips of salted cucumber. We rolled it all up and sliced each roll into savory circles which we ate with soy sauce, pickled ginger, and cups of green tea.

A Chinese engineering student called Li taught me how to make jiǎozi in Japan. My friend Wendy and I peered over Li's shoulder as he mixed flour and water and kneaded it into a ball of dough. We scrubbed the surface of my table and rolled out a hundred little circles, patting each one with flour. Then we watched as Li chopped hakusai (Chinese cabbage) and salted it. I couldn't believe how much we needed: the mound of chopped cabbage was massive, but Li assured me we would use it all. We chopped spring onions and ginger, adding them to chopped pork, then took turns squeezing the moisture out of the salted cabbage -- which had miraculously been reduced to 1/5 of its bulk -- and added that too. We put a mound of the pork mixture onto the middle of each circle of dough and crimped the edges, then steamed the jiǎozi and ate them with a dipping sauce of soy sauce, vinegar and finely chopped garlic.

My daughter and I learned how to make dolmasi (stuffed grape leaves) from Güzin's mother, a woman called Fatma. Güzin didn't have a pot big enough to cook them in, so I'd brought one of ours, a nasty-looking Teflon-coated casserole with a fitted lid. Fatma took one look at this, noted the fact that the Teflon coating is scarred (I tell my family not to use metal spoons with Teflon-coated pots, but I might as well save my breath), and sent Güzin over to the neighbors to find a better one. We watched Fatma mix rice, chopped tomatoes, currants, pine nuts, and olive oil into a fragrant-smelling mixture. Then we all sat down to roll the grape leaves. You put a little bit of stuffing on each leaf and start rolling from the base, tucking the sides in as you roll. My daughter and I struggled to get just the right amount of filling on each leaf. We each had our respective rolling sins: I put too much on first, then not enough; my daughter didn't roll tightly enough, and even Güzin couldn't compete with Fatma for speed. But gradually the pile of cigar-shaped rolls rose higher and higher until all the filling had been used up and the they were ready to be sprinkled with lemon juice and more olive oil and steamed until tender. We ate them hot from the pot, and later cold, and they were marvelous both ways.

There is something wonderful about food that is stuffed or wrapped. The contrast of the wrapping and the stuffing is a delight, as is the surprise of biting into a savory filling concocted from a number of ingredients. The salty tang of seaweed works beautifully with sweetened vinegar rice; the melt-in-your mouth succulence of cooked cabbage perfectly complements the savory center, piping hot and tender; the gingery, garlicky goodness of jiǎozi is a nice surprise to find in a dumpling; each dolmasi is a juicy little parcel with a bouquet of flavors to make your mouth water.

"Well then," said Scottish friends of mine when I waxed lyrical about all of these stuffed or wrapped taste treats, "you're bound to love haggis."

The blood drained from my face. I am sorry to say that I do not love haggis, that I don't even like it. Yes, I ought to be ashamed of myself. What's not to like about haggis? It is wholesome, it uses up ingredients that might otherwise be discarded, it has onions and oatmeal in it, two of my favorite foodstuffs, and it is so Scottish that Robert Burns actually immortalized it in a poem. But I made the mistake of looking at the recipe first, and I really wish I hadn't: (1) sheep's stomach or ox secum, cleaned and thoroughly, scalded, turned inside out and soaked overnight in cold salted water, and (2) the heart and lungs of one lamb, and (3) stock from lungs and trimmings.

I'll just stick with the teachings of Ruth, Atsuko, Li, and Fatma.


Robert the Skeptic said...

During an earlier marriage, Nancy worked as a cook in a French restaurant and Mexican restaurant in San Diego. She was the cook for a sorority in Boulder; when she quit, they begged her to come back.

She makes anything from crapes to chili rellano. Most amazingly she can look at out dwindling supplies in the fridge and make a meal out of practically "nothing".

This weekend the cooking duties transitioned; weather allows us to move cooking outside on the BBQ. That is MY job. After all, men like to cook when it's dangerous. We thrive on each other skills and limitations; particularly at dinner time.

I agree with you though, I would skip the haggis!

Vijaya said...

Lovely, lovely post for my foodie-self.

You would love my mother's karanjis ... it's a pastry filled with flour, sugar, nuts and raisins. We'd made it every Christmas.

I, too, love all these wrapped dishes, but I'll pass the haggis. I have tried various types of meats in a Chinese restaurant, but find that I don't like the texture of many organs.

Pat said...

They all sound yummy but if I have to choose it'll be stuffed cabbage rolls and this lunchtime would be great;)
BTW is it the custom in USA to spell rolls as in edible - roles? I've noticed a couple of times lately.

nanmarino said...

What great memories..and the food sounds delicious. And if you ever change your mind and decide to learn how to cook haggis, I hope you'll blog about it:)

Kim Ayres said...

Haggis is vile stuff. However, there are some wonderful veggy haggis recipes about.

And as for wrapped food stuffs, I always had a love for cornish pasties :)

AnneB said...

Oh, come on, Mary. I bet you've eaten dog and bugs and other things on your travels. If I ever get to Scotland, haggis is the first thing on my list to try!

AnneB said...

And Kim, I live in Wisconsin, where pasties are a native food tradition thanks to a heritage brought by Cornish miners who settled here and in the UP (that's Michigan's Upper Peninsula to you non-locals, pronounced "yoo pee").

Pasties are widely available frozen in the supermarket, and we have them a couple of times a month. Ones made locally by the Reynolds company are also available hot from the oven at their store. Throughout the UP in summer, pasties are sold in roadside stands.

Mmmmm. Must begin campaign to persuade husband that we need to visit the UP this fall!

Falak said...

This post made me really hungry and I think I might try out one of these mouth-watering recipes very soon.

angryparsnip said...

This post made me so hungry.

I have eaten and made most of what you have written about but I stop at Haggis.

My dog Hamish's nick name is Haggis.
When he has to get a hair cut, with four very short crooked legs and a bent tail and a very round body .... he looks just like a Haggis. Poor puppy... but we love him faults and all.

cheers, parsnip

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- Nancy definitely outclasses me. I learn all this stuff, but tend to fall back on things that are quick and easy to prepare. Like Nancy, I can make meals out of almost nothing, though for some reason, people aren't always keen to eat them, especially when I go hog-wild on using up all the stale bread. My husband is good at creating leftovers, but I always get stuck with the job of using them up.

I hope I never get hungry enough to want haggis!

Vijaya -- Karanjis sound great!

I can hardly with you more about organ meats: they just don't do it for me. As a child, I used to hear my mother's stories about how they'd fry eggs with brains so as not to waste animal products. It always made me weak in the knees just thinking about it.

Pat -- It may well be the custom, but it is illiterate to spell 'rolls' as 'roles' and the very thought of finding this on a restaurant menu has me reaching for my copy of 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' -- and my red pen.

Nanmarino -- You can bet I will! If by some accident, I ever manage a bite of haggis, I'll blog about that too. (---shiver---)

Kim -- So glad we agree on haggis! (Maggie doesn't cook it, does she? Somehow I can't imagine finding that in a dish at your house!)

Cornish pasties are fine. No weird, crumbly offal lurking within...

AnneB -- I have a sneaking feeling I've been given dog before and I KNOW I've eaten grasshoppers, though not intentionally (they were crunchy and tasted like old oil, in case you're curious). But hold that haggis!

I will take you to a good place for haggis if you ever come to Scotland. I'm told it's a good place, that is; I just have to take it on trust.

Falak -- But not the haggis, right? Tell me you're not going to go and cook that -- not with all the great things you can wrap or stuff when you make Indian food.

AP -- Actually, 'Haggis' is a great name for a dog, especially if you're not a fan of haggis the food. Your pup can be reassured that no matter how cute he is, you'll never be tempted to BBQ him.

Robin said...

Oh, yum, yum, yummy yum. That was a delicious post. Unfortunately, I'm in bed about to go to sleep, and my belly is saying, "What about some grape leaves? Huh? Couldn't I have just a few?"

I've never stuffed anything but pasta, so I am filled with admiration for your stuffing abilities. I supposed I've stuffed myself, but no one has wanted to eat me. I'm too stringy.

Carole said...

My Korean sister-in-law taught me how to make Yaki-Mandu including the egg-roll wraps. Our family loves them, but now I just buy the wraps instead of making them from scratch. Not as tasty, but so much faster.

I don't believe I'll try Haggis either.

Loved this post. My mouth is watering.

Falak said...

Haggis! After that description you gave and on the basis of my google research, never! I'd rather be on the safe side and stick to vegetarian versions of wrapped delicacies.

Anonymous said...

My hands feel so clumsy wrapping food. I never got the hang of it. When I made dolmas, I could only do the onions and peppers (the easy veggies, not the cabbage or grape leaves). Even my nut-stuffed pastries look all wrong.

These are wonderful memories, and you had great food mentors teaching you how to wrap food.

kara said...

all the scottish people who emigrated away from the motherland did so so that their children need not eat haggis. take comfort, you do your forefathers no wrong.

p.s. stuffed food rocks. and stuffed food stuffed with stuffed food rocks with even more rocks.

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- Stuffing myself into jeans can be a challenge in its own way and not always pleasant. But I'd rather do that than pack an ox secum with chopped up offal and onions. (Brrrr)

Carole -- Now I want to make those too! It's so much fun learning how to make interesting food from a real person, but in a pinch, there's always YouTube.

Falak -- I feel like such a wimp, putting everybody off haggis. But this way, there'll be more for all the people who really love it, right?

Medeia -- Believe me, if I can learn how to stuff cabbage and grape leaves, you can too; I am the worst klutz in the world. The first things you stuff tend to look awful, but they're useful for sampling purposes. :o)

Kara -- I picture my Scottish ancestors packing up their fourteen kids and leaving Ayrshire for a month-long voyage to an uncertain future in a dangerous land. As the ship tossed and bucked and they heaved over the side, I sometimes picture them thinking, "At least we'll never have to eat haggis again." Though I suspect they'd read this post and sigh at what a spoiled ninny they gave rise to.

Kim said...

Am catching up since I haven't had as much time to read blogs as I'd like.

This post was great! I love learning how to cook other foods I'm not familiar with, especially from someone who really knows what they're doing.

But the reference to haggis had me giggling. That's how I felt about morzilla here (blood sausage). I have, in my defense, tried it a few times to be polite but BLECH! Then not long ago my husband bought some Basque morzilla from our favorite pork place. It's the one thing the guy doesn't do on site; he buys them from a guy in another town (too messy to make, the pork guy says). Seasoned with nuts and raisins, and some sweeter spices I'm still trying to figure out, the Basque morzilla is FABULOUS! It's actually now one of my favorites. Like with so many foods, I think how it's made and WHO makes it is the difference between BLECH! and FABULOUS :)

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