Essay: Golabki in the oven, the scent of childhood in the air


Cabbage Rolls With Meat Stuffing and Mushroom Sauce (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
January 8, 2013

Something’s missing.

I’m standing in my kitchen, having just parboiled not one, but two heads of cabbage. I’ve stuffed and rolled the leaves, and now they’re baking cozily in the oven. But something’s not the same.

At this point, the kitchen should be redolent of that special fragrance I remember so well from my childhood: the unmistakable, pungent perfume of cooking cabbage.

At this point, I should be flinging open the doors and windows, as we did when my mother made cabbage rolls — a.k.a. golabki (go-WOMP-kee) — oh those many years ago, to chase the heady scent out of doors, lest it linger in the air for days to come. (Which it always did, anyway.)

But instead, I’m standing in my kitchen marveling at . . . the absence of that essential aroma. I peer through the oven door. Yes, the gas is on and the little pigeons (that’s what “golabki” means) are definitely baking. So why can’t I smell a thing?

I sniff the air, once, twice. Three times. Ah, there! Ever-so-slight, the faintest hint of the familiar bouquet teases my nostrils — and wafts away.

Well, I think, these are not my mother’s golabki.

And that’s not a bad thing.

For years as an adult, I’ve mostly avoided the kind of cooking that my Polish mother did back in the 1960s. Golabki, pierogi, kapusta (ka-POO-stah), kluski (KLOO-skee) — all the specialties of her kitchen are foods I’ve made only a handful of times since I decided that cooking would not, after all, be something I’d avoid for my whole life.

It’s not that these staples of the Polish table are sooo hard to master (though they’re tricky, all right). I just had too many memories of time-consuming labor followed by very, uh, hearty (and waistline-expanding) meals to want to re-create them very often. If I thought about Polish cooking, it was to daydream — purely idly — about opening a restaurant where I’d serve lighter, smaller, updated versions of the old standards. A sort of Polish nouvelle cuisine, if you will.

Well, in “From a Polish Country House Kitchen,” Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden have beaten me to the stove, coming up with smart twists on the tried-and-true. Their cabbage rolls, for instance, call for savoy cabbage, a more expensive variety (my mother wouldn’t even have known it existed) that lacks the telltale sulfurous scent of the regular green stuff and dresses up the little pigeons in prettier, daintier blankets.

Still, in testing the authors’ excellent, elegant recipes, I found myself wandering the lanes of memory, back to my mother’s kitchen and the foods she made for us.

Sauteing their ground turkey patties, or klopsiki (klop-SHEE-kee), I had a perfect Proustian madeleine moment, suddenly recalling the version my mother had thrown together for many a weeknight dinner. I hadn’t thought about them in years, decades even. The patties were ground beef, not turkey. We called them kotlety. There was none of the more healthful light browning and then baking that the cookbook calls for. My mother’s meat cakes were fried, full-on, and served with mashed potatoes and grated carrots. A quick meal to feed the hungry horde. She even skipped the gravy that lots of Polish cooks add.

The dish was simplicity embodied, a contrast to the authors’ fancier concoction, which is served with a potato-chestnut mash and topped with a sophisticated Madeira sauce. But in my memory, Mom’s tasted just as good.

Ditto the pickle soup. The authors call theirs Sour Cucumber Soup, but that’s just a prettier name for the same thing, although their recipe, which adds a load of vegetables and purees the lot, admittedly is more complex than my mother’s basic version, in which a few dill pickle chips floated in a broth laced with sour cream. However it sounds, believe me, it was heavenly. As were all her soups: sauerkraut, tomato, beet, you name it.

The one thing my mother never made was bigos (BEE-gohs). That is perplexing, because this classic Hunter’s Stew is always described as practically Poland’s national dish. Yet I didn’t really discover it till I visited Poland for the first time in my early 20s. My sisters and I theorize that maybe she didn’t cook it because it’s more of a country dish, whereas she was a city girl, from Warsaw. But so much of Polish cuisine is country-based, so that doesn’t really explain it.

No matter. She did make kapusta, a sauerkraut-cabbage combination. Hers was championship quality. That’s really the base for bigos, even in the Applebaum-Crittenden recipe. You start by heating up sauerkraut and cooking a head of sliced green cabbage, just as my mother did for her kapusta.

So I put a pot of cabbage on the stove, and soon the water is bubbling and the cabbage is simmering its way to tenderness. I sniff the air and yes. No hunting this time. There it is.

The scent of childhood.

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