In August of 1998, a few days before Russia defaulted on its IMF loans and the ruble collapsed, I landed in St. Petersburg for a semester of study. I was baffled by the bucking exchange rate and by the fact that three years of college Russian had not truly prepared me for interactions with real live frequently surly formerly Soviet interlocutors. In the beginning, it was a lot like having a pair of floaties in the ocean; by the end, when New Year’s (not Christmas!) decorations had gone up and the sun was hanging around for only about 6 hours a day, I had fashioned a little raft of language skills that was fairly dependable, though sometimes difficult to navigate through squalls of fast-talking, unfriendly strangers.
Luckily for me, my host mother and father were a gentle older couple with a history of taking in American girls. They spoke slowly and clearly and were very patient and kind as I strung my sentences together. In their three-room apartment (bedroom, den, kitchen), I was given the bedroom, which meant that they folded out a sofa in the den every night. I felt terribly awkward about this, but it wasn’t the first time they had turned their bedroom over to a student, and they seemed to regard it as normal.
Marina Nikolaevna, my “mother,” was meant to serve me breakfast and dinner every day. I hate hot cereal and had to struggle mightily for the right to keep eating cornflakes as the cold got more and more bitter. She insisted that I would catch my death of cold without oatmeal or breakfast kasha. I was pretty sure pneumonia didn’t work that way and held firm. But I never objected to her dinners, which always began with soup (vegetable, barley, borscht) and then featured meat with potatoes, kasha, or noodles, and some good black rye bread on the side. (I don’t recall any green vegetables, which, at the time, suited me just fine.) Often the “meat” was delicious pelmini or stuffed cabbage.
I was at school all day and out most afternoons, and so I never saw her cooking; everything seemed to come together effortlessly. No doubt some of it (for instance, the pelmini, maybe the soup, definitely the bread) was store-bought, but it couldn’t all have been; that wouldn’t have been in the budget she was given to feed me. She was a retired geologist (as was her husband), and she just knew how to run her little house smoothly, everything in its place and always neat as a pin. All day long she would sit at the kitchen window, gossiping on the phone and watching her neighbors come and go on the street. While I ate dinner she would chat with me about my day and, with a little prodding, about her life. Her twenty-year-old granddaughter was pregnant, and it was probably high time I (21) got married and started a family, too. They didn’t understand why American girls were so slow about these things. She laughed girlishly when she remembered how she and her friends would sunbathe on the banks of the Neva as soon as it began to melt every spring, and she puffed up with pride at the memory of exams she had aced five decades earlier. As a young geologist she was sent on a state-sponsored holiday to the Crimea; at night they watched movies in outdoor theaters on the beaches of the Black Sea. She got dreamy when she explained to me how beautiful the stars were there. Now I get dreamy when I remember what it was like to wander quintuply layered and still bone-cold around St. Petersburg, looking at the pastel buildings in the odd winter light, buying rolls stuffed with cabbage from carts on the street, discovering monuments to Pushkin at every turn and visiting the Hermitage at least once a week.
Chestno govoriyat (honestly speaking), this is not at all like the stuffed cabbage I ate in Russia, which was much meatier. I wasn’t really a fan of this sweet and sour sauce, but then, sweet and sour is never my favorite flavor profile; Andrew, as usual, surprised me by embracing this dish enthusiastically. It was supposed to include crushed gingersnaps, too, but that sounded like a disaster to me and I wasn’t willing to risk dinner on it. This recipe, then, is significantly adapted to what I was willing to do and what I had in the cupboard. Making the cabbage balls is fun, and hey, they look like little brains. Maybe this is good for a kids' Halloween party!
-Bring 4 quarts water and 1 tbs salt to a boil. Core a 1 pound green cabbage (I used Savoy) and pull off about 18 of the outer leaves, being careful to leave them intact. When the water boils, cook the separated leaves for about 3 minutes, until they begin to wilt. Remove them to a colander (with tongs—do not discard the water), then add the remaining cored cabbage to the pot. Cook for 3 minutes and remove to the colander Add ¼ cup white rice to the boiling water and cook until tender, about 13 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water, and leave in a colander to drain thoroughly.
-Combine the cooked rice, ½ onion grated on the large holes of a box grater, ¾ pound mild turkey sausage [original recipe calls for ground beef], ¼ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper.
-Take the individual cabbage leaves and slice out any tough stems (just at the bottom, without slicing the leaves in half completely). Lay 2 tablespoons meat stuffing on each leaf just above the “v” where you cut out the stem. Fold the two sides over the stuffing and then roll each leaf up into a tight little bundle.
-Shred the boiled cabbage heart and spread half of it in the bottom of a large Dutch oven (I used a 5.5 quart round). Lay the cabbage rolls atop the bed of cabbage, seam side down. Spread the rest of the shredded cabbage over them.
-Combine an 8-ounce can diced tomatoes (including juices), a 14.5-ounce can tomato puree, 1 cup water, 1.5 tbs brown sugar, 1.5 tbs. lemon juice, and ¼ tsp salt in a bowl. Pour it over the cabbage. Peel an onion and stick it with 6 cloves; submerge it in the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook gently for 30 minutes.
-Then discard the onion. Add ¼ cup raisins, if you like (Andrew did not like the raisins; I did). Simmer, uncovered, about 1 hour more, until the sauce begins to thicken.