It's funny how a single dish can bring you back to a moment in time.
I grew up in northern Michigan in the small tourist town of Mackinaw City. My parents owned a motel in this bustling summer place, where we inevitably met a lot of interesting people. People traveled to Mackinaw from all over the United States, and sometimes from all over the world. Yet, some of the most interesting people we met were the locals: the people from the small town of only 700 year round residents.
I must have been seven or eight years old the first time I met Helen and Arpad. They attended the same church as our family, and Helen had figured out that my parents owned a motel- which meant we had an indoor pool. She asked my parents if she and her friends could use our pool from time to time. They said yes, of course, and the weekly visits from Helen began.
Helen was a feisty older lady who was married to an equally feisty and sharp man. Whenever she or Arpad stopped over they spent hours talking to my parents in the motel lobby, or upstairs in our home (which was above the lobby). Soon, this developed into a real friendship and Helen and Arpad became something like adopted grandparents for me, and adopted parents for my mom and dad.
It would be an understatement to call them interesting. Together they had raised four children in the Detroit suburbs. Arpad had been born in Hungary and emigrated to the United States as a young boy. His trade was shoe-making, and he was the first to operate a drive-through shoe repair shop in Detroit. As an older man, he was an expert at building things- including handmade grandfather clocks. Together, the two of them had stories which they would compete to tell: stories of their family vacations traveling across the country, and stories of their children who were all grown up. There were also the sayings and the smart remarks. Arpad, especially, was known to have a wise comment for everything. During one restaurant dinner, the waitress asked our table how everything was. Arpad looked up at her with a sweet smile on his face and remarked, "Well, I didn't have everything, but what I did have was very good."
During the summers in Mackinaw, my parents were extremely busy. They often worked 17-18 hour days, and there was little time to cook. Often, Helen would drop off food for us. But, this dish- Helen's cabbage rolls- I clearly remember eating at their home on the shores of Lake Michigan. I can still picture their dining room with cabinets full of the china she had hand painted, Arpad's handmade grandfather clock hanging on the wall, and a photo of the two of them standing proudly on the church steps on their wedding day.
Helen was standing in the kitchen with an apron tied around her waist. She opened the oven and the sweet smell of cabbage, tomato sauce, and meat drifted into the room. She turned around and shouted at all of us seated at the table. "Do you know what my secret ingredient is?" Without really waiting for anyone to guess, she answered herself, "It's brown sugar."
I remember those cabbage rolls: sweet and tangy, soft with a slightly crisp exterior. We enjoyed them like any good comfort food and were sent home with leftovers.
Sadly, Helen passed away when I was just a teenager. And, this past winter we all said goodbye to Arpad. I'm sure they're both together now, competing for air time in heaven and telling great stories of their years together.
But, in the meantime, I felt compelled to make these cabbage rolls. If only, to bring me down memory lane to a moment when I was a little girl sitting at Helen's table.
Because the weather is getting cooler again, cabbage is appearing at my farmer's markets. I found my cabbage at the Foggy Bottom farmer's market at the Sunnyside Farms stand.
Here is the recipe: in Helen's own words. It's what you would expect a grandmother's recipe to read like, I think.
Helen's Cabbage Rolls
Mix cooked ground beef, cooked rice, and diced onions. Place 1 Tablespoon of the mixture into each softened cabbage leaf. Roll each gently and fry in butter. Place the fried rolls in a mixture of tomato sauce, rinsed sauerkraut, and a small amount of brown sugar. Sprinkle with dill weed. Bake in a slow oven for several hours.
Tiffany's Notes: I used about 6 ounces of ground beef and sauteed it with garlic and onion. I mixed it with about a cup of white rice. To soften the cabbage leaves, I removed them from the cabbage, spritzed them with water, covered them with plastic wrap and warmed in the microwave for about 45 seconds. I baked these for about 2 hours in a 350 F oven, though you could bake them for less time. The long bake time helps the tomato sauce to absorb into the rolls.