A family recipe . . .
"The greatest treasures are those invisible to the eye but found by the heart."--Anonymous
The tree itself was nothing remarkable - a tall box elder (Acer negundo) just inside our yard that blocked enough of the sun so that the grass underneath sprouted only in timid patches here and there. Its canopy also shaded our neighbors' evergreen saplings, which were neatly arrayed along the edge of their property but whose stunted little forms testified to their futile struggle for a bit of sunlight. The decision to cut down the obstruction was easy and in the end, everyone - people and flora - seemed happier.
The remnants of that hapless box elder, whose only transgression was being a big tree in an inconvenient spot, might have been consigned to the fire pit, the wood pile or the chipper. But where most of us saw a nuisance, my father-in-law saw possibility; what we wanted to discard, he wanted to save and revive. So he poked through the pile of chain-sawed wood, picking up a portion of trunk here, inspecting a length of branch there, and took away a few promising pieces to bring back home to his woodshop. A few months later, Dad presented us with this beautiful hand-turned bowl.
. . . and a treasured gift
From a nondescript tree considered by many botanists as an 'invasive species' and for whose living form none of us had any appreciation, came a lovingly-crafted memento. Stripping it of its grayish-brown bark and carefully working the soft, cream-colored wood underneath, Dad had found the beauty that lay hidden from our eyes. With patience and skill, he transformed the knots, scars and unsightly blemishes on a homely piece of wood into natural ornamentation on an object of art.
Over decades, Dad has honed his skills in detailed woodworking, creating lovely bowls, platters and candlesticks, but he's also built furniture, fashioned the cabinets in my mother-in-law's kitchen, and single-handedly constructed the master bedroom and sunroom additions to the family home. He is an incredibly adept craftsman who finds elegance in humble raw materials.
Dad's handicraft in walnut (l) and cherry (r) woods
In recent years, Dad has turned that propensity toward another activity: cooking. He'll be the first to admit that his repertoire is small but he devotes as much attention to detail at the stove as he does at the lathe. And just as he coaxes complexity from the simplicity of wood, he enjoys creating deep flavors from recipes that others might consider 'plain'. From a loaf of whole wheat bread to a hearty beef and barley soup, Dad prepares food with simple ingredients that allow natural tastes to create their own flourish, just as natural imperfections in the wood create the decorative details in his bowls. These qualities are exemplified in what the family considers his signature dish - sarma.
A traditional Eastern European recipe of cabbage rolls made from minced beef, pork and ham mixed with rice and simmered in sauerkraut, sarma holds a special place in my father-in-law's memories. "It used to be made at gatherings at my grandmother's house . . . usually on holiday occasions - Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter," he told me, reminiscing about this taste of the old country brought by his Croatian grandparents when they immigrated to America nearly a century ago. After they passed away, his Aunt Mary took over the traditional meal and in time, she handed on the recipe. "When Mom and I got married, she had written her favorite recipes in longhand in a book and presented that as a gift. She had beautiful, perfect handwriting," he recalled affectionately.
"An idealist is one who, on noticing a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup." -- H.L. Mencken
For many recipes handed down through generations, different ingredients and changing technologies can alter a dish, and yet the sarma that Dad makes today is virtually the same as it was when served by his grandmother. "The only adjustment I made was to double it - there never seems to be enough of them!" he joked. Although Dad still cooks it mainly in the wintertime, he doesn't wait until a holiday to enjoy it. Instead, he regards its preparation as a special time in itself. "When I'm making it, I tend to lose myself in thought," he said. "It's not because I remember making it as a child but now as an adult I realize what it took to put it together . . it's not a real quick [recipe]."
Dad has done his utmost to pass his love of sarma to his children and for the most part, he's been successful. We wait in hungry anticipation when he and Mom bring a pot during their visits,and we're lured by the promise of a batch when we come down to them. Each of the kids has Aunt Mary's recipe and I was fortunate enough to learn firsthand from Dad, who showed me the proper way to wilt the cabbage leaves and wrap the rolls. However, I have yet to learn the most integral part of the recipe: diligence.
As Dad describes the dish, I understand why these cabbage rolls appeal to him: each step requires patience, attention and precision - qualities he holds in abundance from his woodworking. Cooking sarma is "not grabbing this and that," he explained. "There's a method in combining it." Too much filling and the cabbage leaf won't close; boiled too long and the rolls might fall apart. But done unhurriedly, the end result is just as lovely-looking as his wood creations and infinitely better-tasting.
Listening to my father-in-law talking about this cherished family recipe, I realize what a true and constant gift of heritage it has been, first from a young couple who left their home country far behind and long ago, and then from a beloved aunt to her nephew and his new bride. Now, the gift is given once again, from a father and artisan to his children, in the hopes of bestowing a bond of family history, an appreciation for simplicity and the ability to find treasures where only the heart can see them.
Sarma (Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)
If you're still in the throes of winter, as we are here in Minnesota, this dish will envelope you in warmth and comfort. The following is the original family recipe as handed down from Mary Veronica Cepuran. Although I've made this recipe before, the photographs shown here are of Dad's recent preparation.
Dobar tek! [Enjoy your meal!]
Yields ≈ 8 rolls
1 large head of cabbage
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
1/2 lb ground ham [for a different texture, also may be chopped or diced in small pieces]
1/2 cup uncooked rice, divided into 3 portions
1 Tbsp salt, divided into 3 tsps
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 (≈ 32 oz) can or jar of prepared sauerkraut
1 small can of tomato juice [added by Aunt Mary to the original recipe]**
potatoes, cubed or quartered
**Note: For this particular preparation, Dad had no tomato juice so instead used a can of stewed tomatoes, explaining the bits you see in the pictures. He also added some leftover ham slices - waste not, want not!
1. Fill a large pot with water about 2/3 full - enough to submerge the cabbage head without overflowing - and bring to a boil. In the meantime, completely cut out cabbage core, allowing for easier removal of wilted leaves;
2. Wilt the cabbage by submerging the whole head in the boiling water until leaves are softened and easily come off. Remove the cabbage head, reserving the water used, and set aside;
3. In a large bowl, pat down ground beef to cover the bottom; sprinkle 1 portion of rice, 1 tsp salt and pepper evenly on top;
4. Repeat layering with ground pork and ham, and remaining rice, salt and pepper;
5. Mix all ingredients by hand until meats and seasonings are well-combined. Add more seasoning if desired;
6. Separate wilted cabbage leaves. Put about 2 Tablespoons of meat mixture on each leaf and wrap tightly, tucking the ends inside. Use toothpicks to hold them closed;
7. In a large stock or deep pot, cover the bottom with prepared sauerkraut, reserving some to cover the top of the cabbage rolls;
8. Place the rolls in layers inside the pot and cover with remaining sauerkraut. Leftover cabbage leaves may be cut up and added as well;
9. Add reserved water from Steps 1-2 plus more, if needed, until the rolls are just covered. [Optional: substitute tomato juice for some of the water and add cubed or quartered small potatoes if there is enough room on top. Otherwise, prepare potatoes separately and serve with sarma later].
10. Cook slowly for approximately 1.5 to 2 hours on low heat. At most, it should simmer but never boil!
11. When done, serve hot with potatoes or rye bread.