2020 was hard for us even before the pandemic. Save for a working vacation that was fulfilling on a professional level and fun because I got to do it with my husband and colleagues who’ve become friends, it’s been a ton of stressful decision making about caretaking and what to do next. On top of that, many of the things we look forward to as spring begins have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. One of those things was an Easter trip to Minnesota to see my grandma.
When I was in grade school, I wrote a report on why my grandma was my hero/the coolest person alive. I took a lot of time on it and was super proud of it. I even painted a rainbow on the front jacket of the fancy red report sleeve we got for the in class presentation. She’s the matriarch and responsible for all the other women in my family who are equally smart, passionate, funny, and kind. I miss her, and I’m mourning that six hour trip to go spend some time with her. Since I can’t visit her now, and most likely won’t be able to for her 95th birthday in May, I wanted to find a different way to connect.
So I took to the kitchen to make her gołąbki. Years ago, when I moved back to Illinois from New Mexico I had aspirations towards culinary school and cooking was relieving some of my depression at having returned to the Chicago area in the dead of winter. As per usual I also wanted to write, and so one day I decided to bring the laptop into the kitchen and record exactly how my grandma makes gołąbki as we cooked together. I posted it (with her permission) to a recipe website a now well known food blogger had started so even if we were apart I could remember how to do it just like her. With everything going on, I felt like it was perfect for this Sunday afternoon.
Food connects us–especially family recipes passed on through the years. But cooking is meditative sometimes, too. As I cracked eggs into meat and rice and mixed everything together with (very clean, I assure you) hands, carefully peeled leaves off the boiling cabbage, and tried to roll them up securely and attractively, I started to realize just how much my grandma taught me when she taught me to make these, and how many great memories I had of different sunlit kitchens in different houses, when I was little and later as a teenager or adult, when we’d spend the whole afternoon together wrapping up “little pigeons” so good that everyone in our family agreed that grandma made them best. I thought, instead of just sharing the recipe, which you can find here, I’d share the lessons I learned making them, too.
Use what you have: Like so many traditional recipes in so many cultures, gołąbki was a solution to a problem. The “little pigeons” (what the word gołąbki means) were hearty little packages of protein meant to literally feed an army. They’re hearty, they’re homey–and they’re made with simple, inexpensive ingredients.
Simple is beautiful: Another thing gołąbki shares with comfort foods from every nation is that it’s simple. Cabbage, rice, meat and tomatoes. You can add caraway seeds, mess with seasonings, deconstruct it or even change the presentation–and it might be something new and even great. But it’s not what it’s about, or what people remember. It’s comfort, and it’s familiarity, and it’s sustenance.
Getting good things means a lot of hard work and sometimes even a little pain: Making gołąbki is a painstaking process. It takes at least four or five hours from start to finish, and there’s a lot of tedious assembly line work–separating cabbage leaves, spooning out filling, wrapping them up, and sauteeing batches in butter. I’ve learned over the years that oftentimes the best tool for the job is my hands, and that means sometimes I get burned pulling leaves out of boiling hot water or flipping golabkis over to brown the other side just a little.
Trust yourself, but don’t be afraid to ask for help, either: As I mentioned, I’ve been making gołąbki for years now, but even so, the majority of the times I was the sous chef. I was surprised this last time I made them though, by just how much of it came naturally and quickly to my mind, and how familiar the motions were now. I still had to consult the recipe here and there, but my grandma’s knowledge was there to back me up if I needed a little guidance.
Don’t be ashamed of what makes you different: Sometimes, though you love someone and respect them, and they’ve taught you a lot, you learn things in spite of them instead of because of them. My grandma has a secret ingredient to her recipe, but since it was something that sounded kind of odd and wasn’t very fancy, she often dislikes sharing it. But it’s the “secret sauce” and whether or not someone might wrinkle their nose at the suggestion, they’d never turn down a container full of the finished product. Sticking to your guns and being confident in what you do makes all the difference.
Beauty isn’t as important as substance: I’m not going to be the special kind of snob that tells you beauty is meaningless. It isn’t. I love beautifully presented food, I love things that are beautiful just for beauty’s sake. But I still remember as a kid trying to pick out the prettiest, greenest cabbage leaves to roll my share of the gołąbki, and learning (sometimes, relearning) that they’re not the ones you want. They’re more delicate so they tear more easily, and they’re often so large they’re unwieldy. The inner, paler leaves are way more substantial. Finally, medium has its moment!
Use your mistakes: Recipes like gołąbki take all day, and there’s fidgety parts that can get a litte messed up–like tearing the leaves when you pull them from the head or poking holes in them when you stuff them a little too much. Some leaves are too small or tough for use, too. Cooking all day is tiring and it makes you hungry, so we’d always take all the leaves that tore and little chunks we cut out and dice them up then sautee them with the rest of the meat mix, add a little tomato sauce and call it lunch.
Share what you have: One of the great things about grandma’s recipe is that there is ALWAYS more than enough left over. It’s great for leftovers the way chili is, where the longer it sits, the more the flavors marry, but that means there’s plenty to give away to people too, and I’ve often seen big smiles when I give some of mine away to others who have fond memories of the dish.
Now, the food’s done, I’ve filled my family’s bellies for the evening, and though I am way farther away from grandma than I’d like to be, I’m happier for having gone on the journey. Whether you try this recipe or pull out your own traditional family favorite to cook while we all stay #SaferAtHome, I hope you’ll find it meditative, delicious and comforting. In fact, if you try making this or have a great family recipe to share, leave it in the comments below!