It’s a Thursday evening, I’m a teenager and I swoosh the door open to a welcoming, albeit potent, whiff of golden onions sizzling in canola oil. If you’d like to tell me there’s a better smell than sautéed onions, I would have to not-so-politely inform you that you’re in fact very wrong. Would you like an escort out?
My mother loves the smell, but memories of leaving the house with fringed denim smelling of onion has left her less-than-excited for the house to be filled with a smell that will surely linger for a while, and the knowledge that it won’t get better for her when Ima continues with the dish and adds the cabbage that’s been soaking on the granite counter for the past hour.
In reality, this is a memory that’s been a constant in my life. So I might have been a teenager or I might have been 10. It could have been yesterday. What is important is the dish, kraut lokshn or how we call it in our house, kraut and lokshn. If your family is eastern European, it’s very likely you’re used to this cabbage and noodles dish you might even make it the same way. Onions cook slowly in oil watching that they don’t burn but turn translucent and then a golden brown. Then shredded cabbage goes in with a pinch of salt and black pepper and cooks down until you can’t tell where it ends and the onions begin. Then comes the pasta, in my house we use farfalle noodles. If you want to talk about hearty rustic cooking, to me this dish is it. Simple as it gets but it fills your stomach and warms your soul, or your version of that construct.
This is one of the recipes that my grandmother has carried with her from Romania, where she was born, that later got shuffled over into Hungarian hands. It travelled with her and her family to the ghetto, then to Auschwitz, in the ten ice cold days of the death march, to Bergen-Belsen, to Sweden, on a boat to Israel, to Brasil, to America where it landed in the middle of the dinner table of an immigrant family who has stopped moving for a while.
My grandmother and grandfather always spoke Hungarian to each other. A language they didn’t want their kids to know, but shared it among the two of them and the group of survivors who lived within a five-block radius of our Canarsi home. But this dish was never called by it’s Hungarian name káposztás tészta (Kah-poe-stash Tay-stah), it was always referred to by its yiddish one, kraut lokshn— a language my grandmother only learned in Auschwitz.
It’s not just a meal that crosses through my grandmother’s life because of it’s origins, but because of it’s ingredients. Ima often tells me that she learned at a young age in her house to cook what was available and affordable. A lot of those dishes turned out to be cabbage (more cabbage recipes to come of course). Not having a protein available was another thing that followed my grandmother, not just before her family was forced to leave their home and impending wartime made food hard to come bye, but even after. As the population in Israel grew after the war, food was rationed and meat wasn’t usually on the table. In my house, thankfully, there was always food on the table, and kosher chicken, fish, and beef at the ready, but there are ingredients always there, always at the ready in my grandmother’s pantry: a container piled high with onions, and a head of cabbage.
I have made this recipe before, but this time I used whole wheat farfalle noodles because that’s what I had on hand, and as you know reading I like to use what I have and minimize the buying of extra ingredients. You can substitute any noodle you’d like, though I don’t recommend spaghetti or something of that salt. Stay in the short pasta field. But, warning, I have tried with other pastas and farfalle noodles always yield the best results.
Whether you are going to make this recipe or not, I always recommend having a jar full of the stewed onion in your fridge at any given moment. You can thank me later.
16oz box Farfalle
1 head of green cabbage shredded
2 large yellow onions diced
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 tbl canola oil (or vegetable)
Boil your pasta per the instructions on the box (minus a couple of minutes for al dente)
Put 2 tablespoons of your oil into a covered sauté pan, if you don’t have a cover foil will work over a large frying pan too. Then place your diced onion and let cook covered on a very low fire checking every so often to make sure they are not burning. It should take about an hour to an hour and half. You’re looking for them to be a nice brown but not burned.
Time-saving tip: you can also run your onions through a food processor so they cook down faster.
While that’s cooking take your shredded cabbage ( you can put that through a food processor too, but I just break it in half and finely slice it) and put in a bowl of soaking water with a pinch or two of salt.
Once your onions are brown, add the cabbage, salt, pepper. You can add a tablespoon of oil here, but I usually add a tablespoon of water and cover. Leave that on a low fire too and make sure to check it every so often. Once you see that the cabbage and noodles have blended together and are the same color, then add your pasta. Make sure it’s well combined. Take it off the fire and serve!