June 28, 2017

Dear friends,

l grew up with Jamie, graduated high school with him, and remained close to him and his family even after our 13-year marriage ended. I didn’t expect to be making cabbage rolls for his Polish wake at age 67.

Tony declined the invitation to accompany me to my ex brother-in-law’s home Sunday, but he would have been welcome. Jamie and Tony were friendly, and my ex would stop in the restaurant to share clutches of morel mushrooms he picked each spring.

Jamie will forever be a part of my culinary history. With him I explored the restaurants of Italy, England and France. He was there when I ate my first snail, tasted my first Camembert and discovered cioppino. I remember when he cracked up a restaurant in Italy where we were the only (we thought) English speakers by too-loudly responding to my whispered confession with “How can you be off your feed when you’re doing Europe on 20,000 calories a day?”
His brother, Bill, decided on a Polish wake because it seemed the right way to celebrate Jamie’s fun, quirky personality and his heritage. Bill didn’t intend to set up a cabbage roll smack-down between me and cousin Tammy, but that just became part of the fun.

Polish sisters Bernie (Jamie’s late mother) and Sophie (absent with a broken arm) prided themselves on their cabbage rolls. The recipes were similar but not identical. Without planning to, Tammy made her mother Sophie’s recipe and I made Bernie’s for the wake. Jamie’s brothers and cousins had a good time lobbying for a cabbage roll face-off, but Tam and I called it a draw.

My ex mother-in-law taught me to make these cabbage rolls. The deep flavors belie the straightforward ingredients of cabbage, ground beef, rice and tomato juice. It is a dish made in heaven — which, if there’s justice in the universe, is where Jamie is enjoying some now.

POLISH CABBAGE ROLLS

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  • 1 large head cabbage
  • 2 1/4 lbs. ground beef
  • 1 cup white rice, cooked according to package directions
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 egg
  • Salt, pepper
  • 2 quarts tomato juice

Core cabbage, steam or boil briefly and separate into leaves. Drain.

In a bowl, combine beef, cooked rice, onion, egg, salt and pepper. Add 1 cup of the tomato juice; mix gently but thoroughly. The mixture should be very moist.

Place a mound of filling on the stem end of a cabbage leaf and roll up, tucking sides inward as you roll.

Continue with remaining filling.

Place a layer of leftover cabbage leaves on the bottom of a wide kettle. Layer stuffed rolls on top.

Combine 1 cup of the remaining tomato juice with 1/2 cup water. Pour over rolls. Cover with more cabbage leaves. Cover with a lid and gently simmer until filling is cooked and cabbage is tender, about 2 hours. Remove cabbage rolls and add remaining tomato juice to sauce in pan. Heat and pass at the table.

GUT CHECK

More than a dozen of you said you like this feature and only one said she has had enough, so I will continue. Many writers said they like to hear what I ate because it gives them ideas for meals to cook and/or restaurants to visit. I like it because it encourages me to visit different restaurants each week so I won’t seem boring, and cook meals that won’t embarrass me. But I still won’t give up Spam

What I cooked last week:
Lots and lots of cabbage rolls; avocado and soft-scrambled egg on buttered ciabatta toast; lemon-lavender pots de creme (a disaster); grilled thick hamburgers; fried left over cabbage roll stuffing mixture scrambled with an egg (desperation dinner).

What I ate at friends’ homes last week:
Minted cold pea soup, cold salmon terrine, a platter of roast fingerling potatoes with herbs, roast tomatoes and roast peaches, and apple rum cake at Raymond and Doris’; cold strawberry soup, stuffed BLT cherry tomatoes and Belgian endive with Bellinis, Korean bulgogi (tender marinated, grilled beef) in lettuce wraps, and fruit kolachy at a potluck with friends Martha, Joan and Michele; grilled hamburgers, potato salad and sugar-free raspberry pie at my brother’s; and cabbage rolls, macaroni salad, scalloped potatoes, carrot salad and carrot cake with cream cheese icing at my ex brother-in-law’s. I was a real social butterfly last week.

What I ate in restaurants last week:
A taste of Tony’s chicken pasta with diavolo sauce and half a burrito-like sandwich of warm, cheesy flatbread wrapped around sliced spicy sausage, peppers, romaine and mozzarella at Piada in West Akron; beef with broccoli and Sichuan chicken from Chin’s near Tangier in Akron; grilled double-cream gouda and roasted pineapple on toasted sourdough, tomato soup with a balsamic syrup squiggle, and diced fresh fruit at the Blue Door in Cuyahoga Falls.

TIDBITS

Piada Italian Street Food, a fast-food Italian, opened two weeks ago in the former West Point Market block in Akron’s Wallhaven area. Lines wrapped around the building the first week, a manager told me, and the place was very busy when Tony and I visited during week two.

Although I have seen some disparaging comments on Facebook, I thought the food was very good for the price. The Columbus-based chain is modeled on Chipotle, with a front counter where diners choose pasta, sandwich or salad; various sauces and toppings; and protein (sausage, fried or grilled chicken cubes, steak cubes, meatball, calamari and hot peppers, or grilled salmon). Main choices all cost about $7 to $8 plus protein, which ranges from 99 cents to $2.49. The pasta choices are angel hair carbonara, pesto or diavolo (a spicy red sauce).

I liked the wheat flatbread that serves as the sandwich wrap. It’s thin as a tortilla but tastier because it is embedded with Parmesan cheese and warmed up on a crepe griddle until the edges are crispy. I also liked that calorie counts for all of the items are printed on the menu.

The Akron Piada is the latest restaurant in the rapidly expanding chain owned by the Bravo Brio folks. The website is www.mypiada.com.

 

THE MAILBAG

From Mark:
I am SO eager to read responses to your query about local purveyors of lamb.

USDA standards defining “lamb” as opposed to “mutton” must be less stringent about the age and growth than they are in, say, New Zealand and Australia. The shrink-wrapped stuff marketed locally seems mighty long-in-the-tooth, though I guess at least one country’s standards for calling it “lamb” includes limitations on the animal’s advancement towards full adult dentition.

From Deborah:
We are searching for lamb as well. Lately, we’ve been able to purchase it at the Countryside Conservancy Farmers’ Market on Saturdays at Howe Meadow and at Acme No. 1 in very limited supply.

Dear Mark and Deborah: We must be a small club of lamb lovers, because no one else responded. Or maybe they just don’t want to tip us off to their supplier. I will continue to search. Too bad the Middle Eastern market on Graham Road in Cuyahoga Falls has become such an inconsistent source. Anyone have any Lebanese/Middle Eastern friends they can query?

As for lamb vs mutton, the USDA basically has no mandatory standards. All lamb in stores is USDA inspected for wholesomeness (freedom from disease), but grading for quality is voluntary. The quality gradings (prime, choice and good) take into account tenderness, juiciness, flavor and — but one criterion — maturity. According to the USDA, 80 percent of the U.S. lamb supply is good or choice. But I guess if you want to make sure your lamb is indeed young, you have to see it on the hoof.

From Janet C.:
I love to hear what you cooked and what you ate out. I always find new places to try.

Recent things I cooked: Stuffed shells with spaghetti sauce and sausage, Caesar salad, and brown sugar shortbread drizzled with white Belgian chocolate. I’m going to a barbecue on Sunday with friends. Taking deviled eggs with chopped jalapeños and sweet relish, a shrimp dip that I serve with Bugles, and puff pastry appetizers with cremini mushrooms, smoked gruyere and caramelized onions. I told my friends I would bring the appetizers.

I’m going to the Desert Inn in Canton for the Mid-Eastern grilled platter for our anniversary this week and to the bar at Russo’s in Cuyahoga Falls for raw oysters and the roasted garlic appetizer for my birthday. I’m going to Trump Tower in Toronto tomorrow night for my very favorite, steak tartare. I cannot find it many places in Ohio unless we drive to Cleveland. If you know of any place near Akron that serves it, please let me know.

Dear Janet: Yay, a reciprocal gut check! Thank you for sharing. You have reminded me of places to revisit and foods I want to eat.

Does anyone know of an Akron restaurant where Janet can get steak tartare?

Winner of two James Beard Awards for food writing.

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