In the Kitchen with Grandma

Running in the cold yesterday morning made me hungry.  I ran 7 1/2 miles, so had plenty of time to think about winter cooking, and favorite dishes my family loves.  My father’s mother, Grandma Baier, used to make a goulash she called Cabbage Dish.   She made it whenever we went to the island to visit, which was usually during the summer months.  I make it only on cold days, and although the recipe makes a huge amount, my family happily eats it until it is gone.  We are lucky if we have enough for two nights, plus a couple of lunches.  I thought about my grandmother and grandfather as I ran along the shoreline of Cape Ann, feeling fortunate to have been able to spend time with them during my childhood.   I remembered how patient and kind my grandparents were, and how much I loved them.  I have written a few stories about my grandparents and Martha’s Vineyard in my memoir class,  and decided to share one with you. The recipe at the end of this story is on deck for this weekend, when we expect the first snow of the season.

In the Kitchen with Grandma

My hip is pressed close to my grandmother’s, and I watch closely as she slices onions, green peppers, carrots, celery, and cabbage into bite-sized pieces.  She leans over the old red Formica tabletop, cutting right on the table’s surface, her back rounded as she leans over, her lips pressed tightly together in concentration.  The sharp smell of the onions cuts into my nose, and tears pour from my eyes.  I try to wipe them silently, but look at my grandmother and see her tears, too.  I have never been this close to onion slicing, and am surprised by the sting.  I look at her, and she gives me a wide smile.  I smile back, but am quiet, listening to her breath and mine together as she chops.  I am straining to pay close attention so I can learn how to make this favorite dish.  My mother does not cook this way, nor does she invite me into her kitchen when she makes dinner.  I am too old not to know how to cook anything yet, but today I will begin to learn.

I ask if I can help, and she lets me sweep the onions and peppers off of the tabletop and into a large aluminum pot while then turns to light the gas stove.  The blue flame jumps up, and she places the pot over the fire.  She adds a large dollop of corn oil, and in a moment, the tiny kitchen is filled with the pungent smell of cooking vegetables.  The sharp onion smell begins to mellow, and mingle with the scorched smell of the oil heating too quickly.  She lowers the flame and stirs the vegetables, watching them carefully.

“Always cook the onions and peppers together first, not too hot, until the onion bits start to turn translucent.  Then add the carrots.  They take the longest to cook.  Let the carrots go for a few minutes, then add the celery and cabbage.”

She lets me help with this, too, and I see that my hand is as large as hers.  Her nails are long and filed to a nice oval, mine are bitten to the quick.  I notice this as together we pile the rest of the vegetables into a bowl to pour into the pot.  Grandma digs the old wooden spoon deep down into the vegetables to stir everything together.  I peer around her shoulder and see how the bright orange of the carrots is beautiful mixed in with the green and white cabbage.  My grandfather comes into the room, and wraps his arm around my shoulders.  I lean my head against his chest.  He is warm and he smells good, like Old Spice, shellac, and mint toothpaste.  “Helping your Grandmother?” he asks me.  “Paulie, don’t forget the water,” he tells Grandma, and she fills the old stainless teakettle from the tap.  She pours the water over the steaming vegetables, and the pot hisses at the coldness of it.

“K.O., could you get the mustard, the soy sauce, and the molasses?” my grandmother asks my grandfather.  She always calls him K.O.- that’s short for knockout, which she says he was when she met him, and still thinks he is.  I think he is too, but I just call him Grandpa.  My grandfather retrieves what she needs from the cupboard and the refrigerator, and carefully lines up the three bottles on the table.

The cabbage has a strange smell when the water begins to boil.  This is the part I don’t like about Grandma’s goulash.  Before she adds the seasoning, it smells kind of like the dump, or the hallway of an old apartment building.  I wrinkle my nose, and walk closer to the window.  I don’t want to hurt Grandma’s feelings by talking about the smell, so I don’t say anything.  I pace to the top of the stairs, and breathe over there for a little while. Then I ask, “Can put the mustard in now?” and Grandma says, “Okay, but go easy.  Start with about half the bottle.  We’ll add the molasses and soy sauce together.  They are strong flavors, and we don’t want to overdo it.  The balance of sweet, tart, and salty is tricky.”  She smacks her lips, and I carefully spoon out some of the yellow mustard from the jar onto the top of the vegetables.

Grandpa reaches under the stove and pulls a skillet out of the broiler drawer.  He takes a small package of ground beef from the refrigerator and turns on another burner, plops the red ball of meat into the skillet, and breaking it up, browns it nicely.  He adds some ground black pepper. Again, the smell in the room changes, the searing meat adding richness over the smell of the cabbage.  “Make sure you cook the hamburger separately, Elizabeth, then drain it well.  Add it to the vegetables before the carrots are tender,” he offers, knowing how much I want to be able to prepare this on my own.  I venture a question.  “Grandpa, why do you have to cook the meat by itself?  Can’t you just throw it in the pot with everything else?”  “Well, it’s important to drain the fat off of the meat before it goes into the goulash.  Otherwise, the whole dish will be greasy.  It tastes best when the vegetable flavor comes through clearly.  The meat is supposed to be just a little taste.  Ja?”   He still slips into the German yes at the end of his sentences sometimes.  I love to hear him do this, and to hear him talk to Grandma in his native language, even if I understand only a little of what he says.

I sigh to myself, thinking I should be measuring and writing everything down as we cook, but I don’t move to get a pencil or paper.  I feel warm and safe, and the familiar smells make my heart stir even as my stomach rumbles.  I will be able to remember.

Grandma reaches for the soy sauce and the molasses.  She uncaps both, holds them over the pot, and the sticky blackstrap molasses oozes onto the cabbage, the soy sauce dribbles beside it.  She is not measuring.  Again.  I watch.  When each bottle is about half gone, she quickly turns the two bottles upright and puts them down beside the stove.  She takes the spoon and stirs in the mustard I have added into the pot with the other two seasonings.  Almost magically the funny cabbage smell is gone, and replaced with a sweet, sharp smell that makes my mouth water.  Grandpa stirs in the meat, and the crumbled brown bits fall into the wrinkles of cooking cabbage and onions.

Grandma grabs the lid to the big pot and places it on top, slightly off center to let steam out as the goulash cooks.  She waits a few minutes, watching my grandfather scurry about, wiping up the table and washing the hamburger skillet.  He dries it carefully, and puts it back into the broiler drawer.  She puts her hands on her hips, does a little dance step, and I whirl beside her while we wait for Grandpa.  She always makes the messes, and he always cleans them up.  That’s how they are, and when I am there, I am a mess maker, too, just like Grandma.  Then the three of us breathe deeply, drawing in the smell of the goulash.  Grandma takes the cover off of the pot and pulls a tablespoon from the drawer under the table’s center.  She dips the spoon into the dark, rich broth and tastes.  “Ah.  Good.”  She dips again, allowing me to test the flavor.  The broth is intense and mysterious, hot, salty, and earthy.  “I think it needs to be a little sweeter,” I say.  Grandpa tastes, too, and agrees.

Grandma pours in more molasses, and stirs.  While she does this, Grandpa and I set the table.  We put out mismatched spoons, white paper napkins, three stoneware bowls, and three blue plastic glasses.  Grandpa fills our glasses with Carnation milk from the glass pitcher he mixed up earlier, and we all sit down to wait.

In a little while, Grandma gets up to taste again.  I am right behind her, and see that the vegetables have shrunk down so that the pot is only about two-thirds full.  I know this is a sign that we are close to eating.  “How is it now?” I ask, hunger and desire making me impatient.  “Almost ready.  The cabbage needs a few more minutes to be tender.”

And then she is ladling out big spoonfuls of goulash into our bowls, pulling out her chair to sit beside me, and Grandpa is bowing his head.  We do, too.  “Bless this food, Lord, and use it to strengthen our bodies that we might do Your will.  Amen.”  “Amen!” Grandma and I say, and pick up our spoons.

The cabbage curls around the meat and other vegetables, nestling them into every bite.  The broth is rich and full-flavored, curious and delicious.  It reminds me a little bit of Chinese food, but not the kind from American- Chinese restaurants- the kind from Chinatown, where my dad takes me sometimes for Dim Sum.  The vegetables are tender to the teeth, but not mushy.  The meat flavor is there, but Grandpa is right- the flavor of the vegetables is not muddled by grease.

We eat quietly at first, and slowly.  Grandpa sighs, “Ah.  Delicious.  Perfect.”  Grandma and I nod in agreement.  The food is hot, and the kitchen is, too.  The kitchen is on the second floor of the cottage, and the heat from the day takes a while to leave the tiny room, although a small breeze stirs the ruffled curtains Grandma has thumb-tacked to the curved windows.  We can see Ocean Park through the window, and hear children playing tag and catch across the street from the sea.  We are too hungry to do anything but blow on each bite, and slurp scoops into our mouths.  When we finish our bowls, Grandma fills them once more, and I notice how carefully my grandfather chews his dinner, how greedily Grandma and I gobble ours.

Grandma Baier’s Cabbage Dish

Ingredients:

1 small head of cabbage, 1 bag carrots, 1 large green pepper, 1 large Spanish onion, ½ bunch celery, 1 pound ground beef, ½ cup (+)* prepared yellow mustard, ¼ (+)* cup low-sodium tamari or soy sauce, 1/3 cup (+)* molasses, 2 tablespoons canola or corn oil,  water, black pepper.

*  (+):  extra to adjust to taste

Method:

Wash all vegetables and chop them into bite-sized pieces.  In a large stock pot, combine oil, onion, and pepper and saute over medium-high heat until onion is translucent.  Add carrots and cook for 5 minutes more.  Cover with water, turn heat to high, and bring mixture to a boil.  Add celery and cabbage.  Add more water to within two inches of vegetables.  Stir well to mix.  Lower heat to simmer.  While vegetables are cooking, cook ground beef in a skillet over high heat until browned, breaking up the meat with a spoon.  Grind in black pepper to taste. Remove from heat and drain in a colander.

Add beef to stock pot.  Add mustard, tamari or soy sauce, and molasses.  Continue to simmer until vegetables are tender, about 30 munites.  Taste and correct seasoning.  The flavor should be balanced between sweet, tangy, and salty.  Add more of the seasonings, one tablespoon at a time, until the desired taste is reached.

Note:  This dish can be made without meat and is still good.  I have also substituted ground turkey with excellent results.

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