Monday, May 6, 2013

OMG a Recipe: Who's Joe Mama?

A friend told me this story about how he was sitting in on the first day of a college class and the professor jokingly introduced himself by writing his name on the board as "Joe Mama." And then some girl asked in a dead-serious/dead-stupid tone, "Who's Joe Mah-mah?" And with that note of ridiculousness, I dedicate this special Mother's Day post to My Mama and all the Joe Mamas (or Mah-mah's) out there.

This ain't Joe Mama's stuffed cabbage - Photo by Wasabi Prime

How does a meatball soup equal Mother's Day? Shouldn't there be flowers, cupcakes, springtime-friendly chiffon sweets and motherly delights to celebrate the bearer of the womb-with-a-view that flung us out into this great, big, cruel world? My mom has enough of that World's Greatest Mom crap, and given the mass production of such items, you'd think she and all the other moms out there would've caught on to this highly suspect "greatest" status. This year, I'm giving the presents of my presence -- I'm actually going to be celebrating Mother's Day with my mom this year, which is a glorious rarity. I happen to be visiting family during that weekend, so I'm looking forward to saying, "Hey, Mom, Happy Mother's Day," to her, in person, likely followed by a big hug. When you don't live close to family, that personal time becomes such a commodity, especially when you can share even the most Hallmarkiest of the commercialized holidays together.

Wasabi Mom always cooked dinner at least three or four times a week. Just enough to keep things interesting and with enough leftovers to keep Wasabi Dad happy, as he loved the endless buffet of little leftover bites to pick from. I grew up on a mishmash of simple dishes, mostly Japanese-style, humble farmer dishes like sliced pork with tofu, miso soup and the like (anything with lots of shoyu/soy sauce and a side of rice), but Mom would mix things up and make classic standbys like meatloaf, pork chops and more "exotic" fare like stuffed cabbage. Stuffed cabbage or cabbage rolls are popular in many parts of the world -- except Asia, or Hawaii, for that matter, which baffles me over how my mom put stuffed cabbage into her regular rotation of recipes. I assumed it was one of those ubiquitous casserole-type recipes that became popular in the 1950s and 60s and it just fell into the popular ranks of weeknight meals. But from a food history standpoint, its lineage can be traced in a lot of Polish and Russian cuisine and most notably European Jewish meals, served at special dinners celebrating the reading of the Torah. My mom wasn't making stuffed cabbage for those reasons, so how we were having it so regularly remains a mystery.

The basics of stuffed cabbage and how depressingly small a cooked head of cabbage gets - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Stuffed cabbage is just that: a ground meat, typically beef, sometimes mixed with lamb or pork, mixed with uncooked rice, and seasoned before being wrapped in whole cabbage leaves. The leaf-wrapped parcels are steamed or stewed in a tomato-base sauce, and can be served with sour cream or sometimes jam. The recipe and method of making it is as varied as how one makes chicken soup or meat loaf -- everyone's got a different way of making it and it's not about getting stuck on the "Right" way. My mother would mix seasoned ground beef with rice, wrap in par-boiled cabbage leaves and place in a crock pot to slowly simmer with some seasoned tomato sauce before serving. They would be soft, tender food-grenades of meat and cabbage that you could cut with a fork and of course, it went just dandy with sticky white rice. Because that's just how Asians roll.

I had the incredible craving for stuffed cabbage a while ago, but I had zero desire to take apart a head of cabbage and carefully par-boil each leaf. I thought -- what about a soup/stew? Because the glory of a dish like that is of course: EVERYBODY IN THE POOL! Lazytime = activated. The ingredients are all very basic, many of which you already have in your pantry. I made little bite-sized meatballs of the ground beef and rice mixture so that they could gently poach in the soup -- the smaller the better, so the rice in the meat cooks faster. Plus, if you keep the meatballs small, they'll start floating when they're done cooking. I totally had the creepy voice of Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King's IT in my head saying, "We all float down here!" Awesome.

Disturbing clowns notwithstanding...I recommend using Napa cabbage, versus any ol' head of cabbage -- it cooks evenly, the leaves are lacy and delicate, yet remain firm after stewing. It just yields a more tender bite, so that's why I call that out as an ingredient to take note of. It also cooks down to a depressingly small amount, so consider using two heads of cabbage if you want to make the soup's ratio of meat-to-cabbage a little more even.

Letting the stove (and a hand blender) do most of the work - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I also recommend using a blender on the soup early-on, before you add the cabbage and the meatballs. You could wait until the tomatoes and onion soften to near-mush, but a hand blender is so much faster. Just buzz that soup down till it's smooth before adding in the uncooked rice, cabbage and meatballs to braise in that tomato-bath. While this isn't a traditional stuffed cabbage -- the cabbage isn't even stuffed -- it's got all the same flavors of that favorite dish, but in a soup bowl-friendly serving size. And while I pieced this recipe together from memory and added my own flair to it, the finished dish absolutely made me think of my mom, and just how glad I'll be to spend Mother's Day with her this year. Love you, Mom.

"Love You, Mom" Cabbage Meatball Soup

Ingredients for meatballs:
1 lb ground beef
1/2 cup long grain rice
1 egg
1/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Ingredients for soup:
1 head of Napa cabbage, chopped down into fine chunks (or 2 heads if you like cabbage a lot)
1 chopped onion
1/2 cup uncooked long grain rice
1 large can of crushed/chopped tomatoes (about 28 oz)
1 small can of tomato paste (about 6 oz)
1 quart of chicken broth
2-3 cups of water (add to adjust soup consistency)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon paprika
sugar to taste
salt/pepper to taste

Prepare the meatballs by mixing all the wet and dry ingredients into the ground beef. Mix until just incorporated and allow it to rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour, so that the flavors can soak in. 

Place a large pot on the stove and set burner to medium-low. Heat the olive oil to a shimmer and add the chopped onion. Cook the onion down until it begins to caramelize, as it will add sweetness to the soup. Add the can of crushed tomatoes, paprika, a pinch of salt and pepper, and the tomato paste. Mix until incorporated and add the chicken broth and 1 cup of the plain water. Allow it to simmer for about 10-15 minutes, so that the tomatoes have more time to break down. Use an immersion blender to fully break everything down into a smooth soup. Lower the heat to maintain a low simmer and add the cooked rice, so that it has the most time to cook in the liquid. Check the flavor of the broth -- add more salt and pepper to your taste and if it's too acidic, add some sugar to balance it out.

Take the meatball mixture from the refrigerator and start forming small, bite-sized balls. Carefully add the meatballs into the simmering soup -- not all at once, they'll splash! Gently stir the liquid to make sure they're not sticking. There should be enough soup to fully cover the meatballs -- add more water if necessary. Add the chopped Napa cabbage after the meatballs are added, and then cover the pot. Let it gently simmer on medium low/low heat for another 15-20 minutes, to make sure the cabbage wilts, the meatballs are cooked through and the rice is cooked.The meatballs will start floating to indicate doneness.

Serve the soup in bowls, topped with sour cream or plain yogurt, with a sprinkle of paprika for garnish. Now call your mother, she'd love to hear from you.

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