There is something to breaking things apart in order to see the whole more clearly, I’ve learned. This is true in life as it is in food.
This idea lives in how I approach food, looking at ingredients individually for how they serve the dish in concept as well as flavor. I think it’s why I’ve spent so much of my career feeling comfortable breaking “rules,” like praising the idea of an at-home box mix or a one-bowl cake as a means to play around with flavor, or that a twenty-minute dinner could actually emerge from a handful of ingredients and a hunk of bread eaten at your kitchen counter. The lines between food and life(style) here are blurred, though the statement still rings true to me in my work.
I guess it didn’t take cancer in order for me to discover or understand that idea, but my diagnosis certainly gave it deeper meaning. My life broke apart—shattered, really – and then I put it back together carefully. I scrutinized the edges of each piece, at first to discern if it would still fit back together, then, more importantly, whether it was needed at all. I left a lot of rubble behind and the person that I assembled from the broken bits felt more like me than perhaps I had ever known. That, somehow, my being had improved given what outsiders classified as a tragedy offered me a personal relationship to my cancer that is rooted in something resembling gratitude rather than fear or victimhood.
I thought of this recipe when I looked into my refrigerator and found a head of cabbage—one of my favorite vegetables, which I’ve professed before here– and spotted some of my meat sauce thawing a few shelves above for a pasta night. I was struck with the sudden desire to braise the cabbage in the sauce, wondering if I had stumbled upon a delicious alternative use for a staple in my freezer. The result was delicious and disappeared immediately from our bowls, a sign that I had indeed stumbled upon something wonderful. The next day, in the throes of a particularly self-congratulatory moment, it occurred to me why this combination was so familiar: it was essentially the comfort of a cabbage roll but without all the labor. So I decided to make it again about a week later, but lean into the Polish reference by adding a spoonful of caraway seeds from my spice cabinet.
The result was even more comforting than the previous version and felt somehow more cohesive, like a memory resonating clearly after remembering where it happened. Suddenly I saw the unspoken piece of logic in the reassembly metaphor: context. It precedes and defines perspective. Only through understanding context—in life and food, again—do I think real meaning can appear. This is why food tastes different to me now: not because what I cook is changed, but I am. And that I celebrate it here with you with gratitude lends a depth to my cooking, a very real sense of purpose to the whole picture.
Deconstructed Cabbage Rolls
This dinner happened magically one night, materialized in one of those moments of staring down the refrigerator to find a hidden answer. With sauce from my freezer, a cabbage from my vegetable drawer, and rice from my pantry, it’s tasty, comforting flavor (that my kids gobbled up too, greedily unaware they should dislike cabbage) reminded me distinctly of cabbage rolls.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon caraway seed
2 cups Big Batch Sunday Sauce, thawed if frozen
1 medium green cabbage, cored and cut into 2-inch pieces (about 8 cups)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley, optional
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup brown rice, cooked
Yogurt, for serving
Heat oil over medium in a large high-sided skillet until hot; add paprika and caraway, then meat sauce and 1 cup water. Bring sauce to a boil. Stir in cabbage and reduce heat; simmer cabbage, covered, until tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and parsley, if using. Serve braised cabbage over rice; top with yogurt.