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Just like Mamushka Used to Make

Olia Hercules shares Ukrainian classics, like stuffed cabbage, in her new cookbook
Stuffed Cabbage
Video & Photo: Dave Katz/Tasting Table 

"Stuffed cabbage?"

My dad—the man who taught me to cook—was honestly shocked when I called recently to tell him about the exceptional stuffed cabbage Olia Hercules, author of the new Mamushka: A Cookbook, Recipes from Ukraine & Eastern Europe ($35), had prepared in the Tasting Table Test Kitchen (see the recipe).

My father, like his father and like many whose ancestors emigrated from Eastern Europe, grew up running away from the stewed dish. A remnant of the Old Country and times when no one could afford much meat, the classic seemed to get bruised on its journey across the Atlantic and beaten up even further when it was forced to assimilate and bend to accommodate the foods available in American grocery stores in the middle of the 20th century. It became synonymous with a sad brown food lacking depth and character that was tolerated but rarely, if ever, celebrated—at least in our home.

Hercules's version is nothing like that. It is comforting and at the same time fresh, brimming with tomato sauce, carrots, onions and dark green leaves of cabbage, with a sour bite from barberries that cuts through the fat of the delicate pork-and-beef filling. Like me, Hercules ate the dish as a child, though her family's recipe couldn't be further from the one I knew. Though my family's recipe became a shadow of itself, Hercules's mother and grandmothers held on tight to theirs in Ukraine, preserving and protecting it through the wars and communism when food was scarce, making it with vegetables that they could grow in their backyard and stretching the finer ingredients to their limits.

Hercules captures classic Ukrainian dishes, which her family faithfully tended to through the generations, in her book: There's garlic bread, or pampushky, named for a voluptuous woman; varenyky or juicy, meat-filled dumplings; and pickled or "sour" cabbage. They appear alongside recipes for mutton in cilantro and Azerbaijani chicken stuffed with prunes and walnuts from relatives, who settled in Armenia and Moldova, and friends from the Caucasus. Each appears with the story of how the recipe came to her.

"It's food so familiar to me that I hadn't realized it was something special until I became a chef, and even more so when the conflict in Ukraine erupted, prompting me into frantically documenting the recipes that I was so scared I might suddenly lose," Hercules explains in the book's introduction.

To capture them, the London-based writer, who previously cooked at Ottolenghi, headed home to Ukraine. "I followed my mom and aunty with my measuring spoons and scales and got shouted at a lot" by relatives who exclaimed: "This is not how we cook. We just throw stuff in." Still, she listened to the mamushkas, a nickname that Hercules and her brother gave to their mother—from a pirated episode of The Addams Family they watched as kids—that she says has morphed into a term she uses to describe "strong women."

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And despite their protests, Hercules managed to carefully document her aunt's and mother's cooking, and carry it into the 21st century. Many of the book's recipes show the hand of a creative contemporary cook: Pomegranate molasses is added to a lamb and prune soup, adding a tart depth; dried barberries are mixed into the filling of the stuffed cabbage to stand up to the sourness that came from the whole fermented cabbage leaves Hercules's grandmother used in her original recipe.

Back in our kitchen, as the bundles of cabbage simmer away, I can see that some of the mamushkas' cooking philosophy has rubbed off. When I ask Hercules what to do if a cabbage leaf tears, she brushes it off, saying not to worry about that or the dumplings unraveling, as they will get "tucked in so tight" into their bed of sauce. Her tone is reassuring, as it is in the book.

The steam from the dish smells of meat and tomatoes, but there's a lightness to it. We peek into the pot together: The cabbage is still bright green and the sauce a warm red; it looks nothing like what I saw as a child.

"People eat stuffed cabbage quite a lot in Ukraine—like maybe on a weekly basis," Hercules says, almost laughing. While it's an everyday dish, for me, the discovery of an Old World recipe, untarnished from a trip across the ocean, feels worth celebrating.

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