February 13, 2010

Keepin' It Real with Peasant Food

Blanched & Ready for Some Offal-free Stuffing

There's nothing like being catapulted into ecstasy by a dish that is cheap and easy to make. Who needs to spend millions on a truffle-stuffed Cornish hen...that's been stuffed into a pig's bladder...that's been stuffed into the slacks President Obama wore to his senior prom...that's been stuffed into a diamond-studded Hummer? As appealingly postmodern as all of those layers sound, I'll stick to something a little less aristocratic.

However, don't turn your back on stuffed food just yet, folks. Even though Obama's stuffed pants might be off limits to those of us forced to survive in a blistery, trust-fundless world, there are still many peasant-friendly possibilities when it comes to stuffed food. In fact, in the world of peasant food, nearly everything is stuffable!

Consider the following stuffed-food examples, all of which have been considered "peasant food" at one point or another by historians & folklorists:

1. Tamales
2. Stuffed Peppers
3. Haggis (Pig stomach stuffed with a number of "treats," including oats, liver, and heart)
4. Sausage (This counts as a "stuffed food," right? I mean, traditional sausage is made by stuffing ground meat into intestines, dude.)
5. Faggots (Don't worry, I'm not using this term in the offensive way. Faggots are a traditional peasant food from the U.K. Midlands. They essentially consist of pig cheeks, livers, and other delights stuffed into caul, the amniotic membrane that remains after a piglet is born.)
6. Cow Brain Ravioli (Argentina & Paraguay)
7. Empanadas
8. Jiaozi/Gyoza/Pot Stickers
9. Korouch (A rice-stuffed pig intestine from Lebanon)
10. Meat Pies
11. Cabbage Rolls

And the list of stuffed peasant food goes on and on. What made these dishes so "peasanty," or economical, wasn't just that the ingredients (oftentimes just leftover scraps of meat and cartilage adorably tucked inside a handy pouch of dough or, uh, stomach lining) were so cheap, but many of them were pretty damn easy to tote around as well. If one had to wake at the break of dawn to erect the walls of the king's new party chateau, one wouldn't want to pack his goatskin lunch bag with a Tupperware-full of lobster bisque, right? Right. Loading the bag with a fistful of meat pies would make much more sense: they'd be both durable and filling. The pies would also have a much longer shelf life (or goatskin-lunch-bag life) than the prissy bisque.

Who says "Peasant" has to be low-brow?!

And even though we've come far from those feudal days of yesteryear, we haven't totally left peasant food in the rabbit skins of our past. In fact, there are many stuffed/wrapped modern-day equivalents. Yesterday's meat pies are today's microwavable burritos, Hot Pockets, white bread sandwiches ("stuffed" into a plastic bag), and veggie wraps. Even though some unidentifiable chunks of meat, or soy-product, might appear in these stuffed goods from time to time, we no longer identify these portable meals as "peasant foods"; instead, we label them as "convenience foods." (And, depending on how longeth be the list of ingredients on the packaging, words like "slightly radioactive" might also come to mind. Yes, chances are the preservability of a Hot Pocket would far exceed that of any peasant's meat pie...or human being. Well done, Science.)

Today's stuffed grab-and-go treats are, in general, pretty cheap, thus linking them even more firmly to their peasanty roots. And regarding the issue of sturdiness, need we even ask? We all know that Hot Pockets can withstand much abuse. Just yesterday I ran over a Hot Pocket with my double-deck Hummer, and the Pocket lived. Case closed.

Though not quite as sturdy as a meat pie, or a Hummer for that matter, my Grandma Ach's Cabbage Balls are as close to stuffed perfection as peasant food gets. Tangy, aromatic, and as multi-textured as a courtesan's wedding dress, these cabbage balls--traditional peasant food of Eastern Europe--will fool any eater into believing they were born into the noble class! However, underneath the surface of all that richness they're the peasantiest of peasant foods: stuffed, sturdy, meaty, filling, portable, and extremely preservable (1 week in the fridge, eternity in the freezer).

I'm curious: What's your favorite stuffed food?

Pre-Sauced, Pre-Cooked Cabbage Balls

Grandma Ach's Cabbage Balls
(Recipe that follows comes directly from granny's recipe index card. I added a couple of additional notes in brackets. Feel free to improvise! I see a lot of room in these rolls for garlic, peppers, and other sturdy-&-aromatic vegetables. Lots of people in the Midwest add sauerkraut to either the filling or the tomato sauce itself. Makes about 12 balls.)

-1 medium head of green cabbage
-1 lb. ground hamburger
-1/2 lb. ground sausage
-1 large onion, chopped
-1/2-3/4 cup long grain rice, uncooked
-Enough canned diced tomatoes, with juice, to cover the balls before cooking (Or even better, in my opinion, is straight-up tomato juice. As in V-8. Sounds odd, but I prefer my cabbage ball sauce to be chunk-free!)
-salt and pepper to taste

1. Cut core out of medium head of cabbage. Put upside down in pan of 3-4 inches of water. Simmer until the leaves are soft, then peel them off. Cut large vein out. Count leaves and set aside. [This process took about 30 minutes. Make sure the leaves are pliable before setting them aside on a plate.]

2. Throw the meat, chopped onion, and uncooked rice into a large bowl. Stir until combined. Add a few dashes of salt and black pepper. Make into balls to match the number of leaves. Wrap balls into leaves. Add tomatoes or tomato juice and simmer 2.5-3 hours. [Try to wrap these balls as tightly as possible. When placing into the cooking pot, I arranged them loose-end down to prevent them from splaying open too much while cooking. I added 2 large cans of diced tomatoes, plus juice, but I prefer my grandma's method of using V-8.]

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