Food, Lifestyle

Sounds of laughter a recipe for happiness

Pictured is stuffed cabbage. Find the recipe below.


“Cheeez Noni, cheeez.”

One-by-one I showed 2-year-old granddaughter Emma yet another cheese: the ball of mozzarella, the block of cheddar, the American individually wrapped in plastic.  She rejected every one with an impatient tone.

“No Noni, cheeez!” as she sat like a little princess on the giant butcher block in her family’s kitchen. My days of babysitting little Emma were filled with walks on the beach, collecting shells, crabs and sea glass. Often we would make a mobile with our treasures. Sometimes we would paint the giant clam shells or rocks. Most exciting was when we would find a little plastic toy or ball that the tide washed in.

Emma helped me cut out cookies with a buttery dough that she loved to eat unbaked. Whisking eggs, dropping batter for pancakes or waffles, and making pasta were second nature to my little sidekick.  

But the cheese thing, I just couldn’t figure out what she was thinking about. But I made her a grilled cheese anyway.

A few weeks later her sister was born. My son drove Emma and me to the hospital to see Maddie for the first time. On the way, we passed a shopping center and she excitedly pointed and, with as much enthusiasm as a 2-year-old could express, screamed “Cheeez Daddy, Cheeez!”  

I asked my son what that was about. He explained it was about Chuck E. Cheese. Unbeknownst to me, they had recently taken her there for pizza. Now I understood.

I hope my granddaughters will hold on to fond memories of our times together. Emma loves to tell the story about when her kitty’s food was out on the counter and she ate some of it when I was distracted. I called her mother at work to ask what I should do; she calmly said she would call me back after she consulted the pediatrician. “If Emma starts to meow, bring her to the emergency,” Mary reported back.

My grandmother was funny, too. Like me, she enjoyed a good laugh and loved to cook for the family. Back in my day everyone seemed to have a grandmother. I was married at 20 and had three children by the time I was 25.  Nowadays, kids get married in their 30s or not at all and have kids when they’re 40 — or 50-something, like Janet Jackson. Grandmothers will become a little-known phenomenon if this keeps up.

I have great memories of getting together with my friend Barbara’s grandmother, her Babci. We made stuffed cabbage that she called “guomki.” Like my noni, she smelled good and laughed easily and was an excellent cook.  

Before children, we enjoyed cooking together. From the time I was 10, I learned to cook supper for my mother, brother and me. My grandmother, mother and her seven sisters were all excellent cooks, and my cousins and I learned to cook by osmosis.

Back then, people were using cans of cream of mushroom soup to make gravies and sauces. My family cooked with fresh, natural ingredients. We didn’t do canned foods, other than tomatoes, perhaps. My grandmother preserved all her foods from her own garden.

My repertoire was Italian, of course, but I also loved learning a recipe that had been in a family since they came from Poland at the turn of the century. That I found was a real treat.   

When I visit my relatives in Rome I am struck by how many grandparents can be seen pushing carriages, walking and playing in the parks with their little charges.  In my own family in Italy, my older cousins live with their children. They make dinner, babysit, drive, grocery shop.  They tell me that very few of their peers have daycare for their children. “That’s what grandparents are for,” they say. Makes sense to me.

Stuffed Cabbage inspired by Babci    

Buy a head of Savoy cabbage, the curly-looking one.

Pull off the outer leaves and cut out the bottom core with a paring knife.

Boil in salted water until the leaves come apart easily.  Remove, turn upside down and drain well.

Separate individual leaves and place on paper towel to dry.

Cook 1 cup of white rice, set aside.  

In a small saute pan, sweat a few tablespoons of red onion, chopped. Place in a bowl.  

Grate the zest of 1 lemon into the bowl.

Add to the bowl 1/4 cup of toasted pine nuts, 1/4 cup of raisins or chopped prunes, 3 tablespoons chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, 1 beaten egg, ¼ cup of grated Parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup of chopped apple and 1 cup of the cooked rice. Add to the bowl 1 pound of ground pork, and 1 teaspoon salt and pepper. Mix well.  

Oil a Teflon-lined muffin tin.

Spread the cabbage leaves out on a surface and add 1 heaping tablespoon of the meat mixture to the center.  

Fold around the meat and place seam-side down in the muffin tin.  

Spray with olive oil and bake at 350 degrees until the tops appear golden on the edges.

Serve with a sauce of 4 tablespoons cilantro, 1 cup of yogurt and 2 tablespoons lemon juice, which you puree in food processor.  

I like to serve mine with some poached apple or pear. “Salute” to grandmothers.

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