Stuffed Cabbage and Knishes

Eileen W. Fisher

© Copyright 2019 by Eileen W. Fisher

Photo of a plate of Knishes.
When I think about my mother, what comes to mind is her reputation as being a great cook. There were no cookbooks in my house, no recipe files; everything was made from scratch. In a generation when most women did not work, many found self-expression in cooking for their families and friends as did my mother. It was her way of expressing love for her family, and friends. It was her way to shine, and to share.

The excitement of Chanukah was not only my anticipation of gifts, but also the anticipation of hosting a Sunday night dinner for my aunts and uncles. First, my Dad would rearrange the living room furniture so that he could pull out the blond mahogany extension table. Then, my mother would cover it with the white and gold linen tablecloth which she had freshly washed and ironed. Finally, I would set the table with the ‘good’ dishes, and the sterling silver knives and forks which I had just polished.

Pungent smells of fried onions with garlic would drift in from the kitchen as we sat around the table. And, my mother never came out of the kitchen until all the food was brought out; her specialties – neatly wrapped rolls of sweet stuffed cabbage, and … homemade potato knishes, crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy inside.

I always took my mother’s cooking ability for granted until one Sunday afternoon when we went downtown to Port Arthur’s Restaurant in Chinatown to celebrate a birthday. As usual, we ordered chicken chow mein and egg drop soup. While we were walking to the car, my Mom unexpectedly announced that she would make chicken chow mein for us at home.

You know how to make that?”, I remember asking.

When asked about her cooking ability, her answer was always the same, “I look to see what they put inside, and I taste it. It’s the seasoning that counts, and everybody cooks to their own taste.”

True to her word, I came home from school one day to find the kitchen counter cluttered an array of cooking ingredients and utensils: an open box of corn starch, jars of spices, a pungent garlic clove and garlic press, two very sharp knives and a big soup ladle. Instead of finding my mother sitting at the kitchen table waiting to greet me, she was standing at the stove wearing an apron, stirring small chunks of chicken with chopped green onion in a large pot of simmering water. As I watched her, she took a taste, carefully added a pinch of this or a pinch of that, and tasted it until she was satisfied.

And… boy, was that good! I was amazed that my Mom could make such a complicated dish without a recipe!

A few days before the usual Sunday dinner, I came home to find my mother unloading a full shopping cart. She took out a large brown paper bag from Irving’s Butcher Shop, unwrapped the waxed paper package, and dumped the ground beef into a large metal mixing bowl. Then, she seasoned it with kosher salt, a bit of paprika, and lots of garlic powder, covered it with tin foil, and put it into the refrigerator to marinate overnight.

The next day, my mom boiled the green cabbage until soft, separated the leaves, and spooned into each one a patty of meat with freshly fried onions. After baking the stuffed cabbage rolls on top of her homemade tomato sauce, she covered the pan with tin foil, and placed it in the refrigerator so that the spices could soak in.

But since my Great-uncle Hymie and his wife Julia were coming, Mom made loads of potato knishes, his favorite dish. Two five-pound sacks of raw potatoes were ready for use, but the knishes would be made Sunday so that they would be fresh. The secret to my mother’s knish was the sheet of dough that held the mashed potato filling. Each sheet was very thin, and fried in hot oil only on one side so that the outside would remain brown and crispy, while the spicy potato filling remained soft.

The evening turned out just lovely!

As platters of food were passed around, my mother urged everyone to take more. There was always more food on the table than needed because my mother’s philosophy was, “If you don’t put out enough, nobody wants to finish what’s there, and you end up having food left over. Better you should have too much than too little. You don’t want to be the one that they talk about.”

Later that evening as Uncle Hymie and Aunt Julia were getting ready to go home, my mother brought out a large brown paper bag tied with string. “Here Hymie. Take this. I made some extra knishes for you to take home.” There must have been at least a dozen of them judging by the size of the package.

Please, Ray, you shouldn’t have bothered.” interjected Julia, as usual! “Does Hymie look like he needs it? We could both stand to lose some weight.”

Ignoring his wife’s comments, Hymie took the package. Turning to my mother with a twinkle in his eye, he said to Julia, “Ray makes the best knishes”. There was never any doubt of his not taking them, just as there was never any doubt of my mother taking ‘no’ for an answer.

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