Food & Drink » Dining

Holy Holubka!

Traditional Russian recipes fill the house with the smell of cabbage

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TAKING A CHANCE Who among us hasn't found an amateur community cookbook and thought, what the hell? - NICOLAS GRIZZLE
  • Nicolas Grizzle
  • TAKING A CHANCE Who among us hasn't found an amateur community cookbook and thought, what the hell?

My cookbook collection is obscure, to say the least. The World Encyclopedia of Cheese and America's Test Kitchen sit next to three spiral-bound copies of the Chicken of the Sea Tempting Tuna Cookbook. So when I came across St. Mary's Russian Orthodox Church of Minneapolis' Our Traditional and Favorite Recipes at a garage sale, it only seemed natural to take it home.

A slice of 1970 American Midwest life, it features 195 pages of recipes, 75 of which are desserts. Apparently there were 1,000 of these printed, in two editions. How did it get to Santa Rosa? I don't care. I just want some gloopy cabbage goodness.

Most of the recipes measure ingredients by can size. The drink "Summer Cooler" features two ingredients: one can concentrated lemonade and ginger ale. Guess how it's made? This book is absolutely full of recipes like this: ham patties with sour cream; deep dish corned beef hash (with canned corned beef); braised liver casserole; and my personal favorite, shrimp Chinese (calling for cans of water chestnuts, mushrooms and even chow mein noodles).

Looking for something more American? How about chili con wiener? Prune whip? Easy date dessert? (To my dismay, it actually contains dates.)

These recipes have been crafted by what I envision as sweet, loving grandmas who thought their horrible casserole that took hours to make was the best thing ever because nobody had the heart to tell them otherwise. But what really made me pull the trigger on the $1 purchase was the collection of traditional Russian and Czechoslovakian recipes. Piroshki, pierogi, head cheese, machanka (mushroom soup with sauerkraut juice, with or without fish), studenina (jellied pig's feet) and other unpronounceable delicacies litter the pages. Of course, I was compelled to make something from this book, but in the interest of not wasting food, I searched for something edible.

Page 23 contained my answer: Mrs. George Nepsha's Holubka. These ground beef-and-rice-stuffed-cabbage rolls looked like something I'd had at the Glendi food fair in Santa Rosa—at least there was precedent for edibility, and cabbage, ground beef and rice are cheap. I ended up going with Mrs. Leonard Soroka's variation of canned tomato instead of vinegar covering the holubka while it baked.

The result was, in fact, edible—borderline tasty, even. They were little Russian enchiladas, and took about as much effort to make. Had I this mindset going into the hour-long preparation, they would have turned out much better. I would have sauced the cabbage like a tortilla, rolled them open-ended and pressed them flat. This would have taken less time, but I don't think that was a concern for the authors of this book.

Many facets of these recipes require translation. The holubka recipe simply said to "bake for an hour or so," no temperature or pan specified. I'm also pretty sure the recipe was referring to minute rice, because mine took significantly longer to cook through than suggested.

I have returned from garage sales with chandeliers, broken turntables, a box of undated alcohol from around the world and countless other curiosities. Luckily this time, it only ended with holubka.

And I can't wait until Christmas Eve, when the time will finally be right for lima beans with prunes.

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