Piermont, NY – Here’s the tricky thing about holidays like Passover: Stuff the cabbage with shiitakes instead of ground beef and you risk hearing: “It’s not like Grandma Etta’s.”
Which is code for failure.
This, in large part, is why we keep replicating the same dishes our mothers and grandmothers made, even when we think we don’t. Who needs tsouris when you’ve been on your feet for eight hours in front of a hot stove?
So off to Fairway I went, attempting to straddle that line between tradition and nutrition. Shopping has become more of a group activity since I began the dinner circuit in January.
I’ve long heeded Mark Bittman’s call for healthful simplicity. Robert Lustig looms large in the bakery section. Michael Pollan has me skirting the center of the supermarket. It’s like shopping with a Greek chorus.
The compromise here is that I let Barry pick one traditional dish that I can’t tweak to reduce or eliminate fat, sugar or meat. He picks brisket, which I have to admit is one of my better go-to dishes. But it also cooks for hours, and time at this point was running out. So I subbed in a French cut standing rib roast seasoned with fresh thyme and rosemary and served with a rich portobello sauce. There was also a salmon steak with a splash of lemon for my semi-vegetarian friend.
The menu for seven:
Gefilte fish from Zabar’s, which was provided by my friend Margie Deibler.
My vegetarian version of my mother’s sweet and sour stuffed cabbage. (The recipe’s below.)
Roasted sweet potatoes baked with sliced California dried apricots, a cup of fresh orange juice and a touch of brown sugar.
A mountain of almost-local asparagus, roasted lightly with a spritz of lemon and a dash of kosher salt.
Apple kugel, made with matzo instead of noodles and a cup of my autumn apple cider reduction that I mix with homemade apple butter and use instead of milk.
For dessert we had bowls of fresh strawberries and grapes, and one of our guests, Leslie Milton, who is director of major gifts at the Tenement Museum on the lower East Side of Manhattan, made fabulous coconut macaroons dipped in chocolate.
I’m going to leave the sociology of the night to a guest, Kate Deibler, who took notes as we chopped and scraped before dinner and was still writing as we washed and dried about five hours later. Check back tomorrow to read what she thought. And for reading on the serious side, check out Paul Greenberg’s “An Oyster on the Seder Plate” in today’s New York Times.
And now, I leave you with Aunt Marty’s Better-Than-Beef Sweet and Sour Stuffed Cabbage:
Make the filling: Dice and sauté one large onion until translucent in 1/4 cup of water and 1 tablespoon of peanut oil. Mix together the cooled onion with 1 pound of diced shiitake mushrooms, 1 cup of black raisins, three cage-free fresh eggs and four crumbled matzohs. I used egg matzoh because it was available but the regular cardboard version works just fine.
Make a sauce of one large can of pureed tomatoes, one cup of water, juice from one lemon, and 1/4 cup brown sugar. Add a dash of salt. Mix in large Dutch oven or soup pot with high sides.
Soften whole cabbage leaves in simmering water until soft enough to fold, about a minute. Fill with the stuffing and roll like an eggroll, plop into the sauce, and simmer for an hour. I like to julienne the remaining cabbage and put it over the cabbage rolls.
And Barry the skeptic? “I’m choking over these words, but it’s equally as good as Grandma Etta’s,” he said.