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AFC’s Homegrown Foodways Film Premiere: Multigenerational Ukrainian Foodways with Roman Kovbasniuk

The following is a guest post by folklorist Sally Van de Water, Folklife Programs Manager, Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County, New Jersey. The AFC’s Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey film series is a collaboration with Van de Water and colleagues at the Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County. Read the introductory post about the film series here, and watch the first film in the series here. Stay tuned to Folklife Today for the November 16th premiere of the final film!

As part of the AFC’s Homegrown Foodways in Central New Jersey film series, today’s premiere is of the film, Multigenerational Ukrainian Foodways with Roman Kovbasniuk, which honors New Jersey’s vibrant Ukrainian communities and their rich foodways traditions. Watch it in the player above, or on the Library’s YouTube channel!

Sandwiched between New York and Pennsylvania, the states with the highest Ukrainian-American populations, New Jersey also boasts multi-generational Ukrainian-American communities who sustain food traditions in big ways and small, from large-scale festivals to quiet family cooking lessons.

Roman Kovbasniuk demonstrating how to make Holubtsi (rolling the cabbage rolls) during filming.

Roman Kovbasniuk demonstrating how to make Holubtsi (rolling the cabbage rolls) during filming. Photograph by Sally Van de Water on August 15, 2022.

Today’s film features Roman Kovbasniuk, who grew up steeped in Ukrainian traditions through his family and his surrounding community. Though he has mastered the creation of Holubtsi (stuffed cabbage leaves), the dish he makes in the film, he actually only learned how to make it two years ago from his then 97 year-old grandmother. You can follow along and make Holubtsi with Kovbasniuk’s recipe below.

This year’s film series is based on a collaboration between the AFC and the Division of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Arts Institute of Middlesex County, particularly our Share Your Foodways program. Each of the Share Your Foodways guest chefs provide their recipes that we print and make available online. And Kovbasniuk’s recipe was by far the most descriptive we’ve received, as though he’s standing in the kitchen with you!

Some of the things I love most about this dish, as he discusses with Share Your Foodways host Carolina Moratti in the film, are Kovbasniuk’s ideas about “making do”: adapting your dish to what you have available, or to the preferences of those you’re feeding. As he explains, this dish can be vegetarian, with poultry, or any other combination of meats.

We hope you enjoy the film and making Holubtsi. And stay tuned to Folklife Today for the November 16th premiere of the final film in this series.

Holubtsi (Ukrainian Stuffed Cabbage Leaves)

By Roman V. Kovbasniuk

The recipe shared here is my personal recipe, as adapted from my grandmother, Nina Kovbasniuk. It is a simple recipe and can be adapted to fit any diet by omitting meat and/or changing the vegetables included. Use your imagination!

Ingredients:

1 large head of cabbage

2 cups of rice

1 medium white onion

1 slice portobello mushroom

1 peeled adult carrot

1 pound of meatloaf mix (beef, pork, veal)

4-5 tablespoons of cooking oil

Salt and pepper to season (I personally use Vegeta seasoning)

1 quart (32 oz) of vegetable broth

Kitchen tools:

1 large stainless steel pot

1 small-medium pot (or rice cooker)

1 large pan

Dutch oven

Sharp, pointed knives (non-serrated, 1 for chopping, 1 for slicing)

1 vegetable peeler

1 “barbecue” fork (two-pronged fork)

1 large mixing bowl

Step 1: Boil a large pot of water and a small pot of water

Before touching any ingredients, start heating up a large pot of water to put the cabbage in once the water is boiling, and also after you’ve completed Step 3. (Note: you can also put the cabbage in while the water is cold, if you prefer).

Step 2: Cook your rice

Take two cups of rice and wash them in a sieve. This will make the rice easier to work with and more pleasant to eat. After you wash your rice, add it to a small pot. Add four cups of water to the pot, making certain the water is only 1 finger knuckle deep. Continue to cook the rice for 1 minute after the water boils, allowing the rice to soak up some of the boiling water before removing it from the pot and adding it to a large mixing bowl for later.

Step 3: Remove the core of your cabbage

Place your cabbage on a sturdy surface, and cut out the core with a sharp, pointed knife. Make certain to keep your fingers out of harm’s way, as the core can be difficult to remove.

Step 4: Soften your cabbage

Place your cored cabbage into the boiling water, core side up. Remove any excess water, and make sure you add some boiling water where the core used to be. The water will soften the center of the cabbage, which will make removing the leaves easier.

Step 5: Brown your vegetables and meat

While your cabbage is softening and your rice is cooling, chop finely your medium white onion, slice of mushroom, and peeled carrot. Heat up a large pan; add 4-5 tablespoons of cooking oil, then add the onion. Cook the onion until it is tender. The onion is ready when it looks somewhat translucent in the pan. Once it is ready, add your finely chopped mushroom, 1 pound of meatloaf mix, and brown it. Stir the onions and mushrooms into the meat so that the flavor infuses with the meat. Continue to stir until all the meat is browned. Do not fully cook the meat, so that it doesn’t dry out when you put it into the oven. Once you’ve browned the meat, onion, and mushroom, add your carrot so that it can soften as the rest of the mix cools. (You will want to add the carrot last so that it doesn’t get too soft and lose its bright sweetness.)

Step 6: Mix the rice and meat

Once you have finished browning the meat mix, remove it from the pan and add it to your cooked rice. Mix and fold intently so that everything is well blended. Be sure to season the mixture, because the water in the rice and vegetable will pull out any flavor the meat and onion will have. After you’ve mixed your rice and meat, set it aside to cool.

Step 7: Check the cabbage/remove the cabbage

By the time you finish making your stuffing, the cabbage should be soft enough to pull apart. It is going to be very hot, so use a fork to pull out the cabbage when it’s ready. You’ll know it’s ready if the first layer of leaves has started to peel away from the cabbage.

Step 8: Separate the leaves

Now that you’ve removed the cabbage from the water, start pulling the now-softened leaves from the cabbage head. If some of the leaves have holes in them, don’t worry about it. You will be making 12 Holubtsi in total, so not every leaf has to be perfect. In a later step we will be using the torn leaves, so don’t throw any leaves away. This is a “zero waste” recipe, so everything will be used.

Step 9: Assembling your Holubtsi

You’re in the home stretch! All you have left to do is assemble your Holubtsi. Essentially, you are going to be rolling a burrito, so to speak, but before that, place your Dutch oven next to you so that you can transfer your Holubtsi into it. Coat the bottom and the sides of the Dutch oven with cooking oil of your choice and set your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

While your oven is heating up, take a leaf that is not torn, and lay it flat. Next, take one of your sharp, pointed knives and slice through the vein at the base of the leaf [you can see how this is done in the film]. You do this in order to ensure an even temperature throughout the cabbage roll while it’s in the oven, and it also provides a more workable shape during the rolling process. Once you’ve sliced the vein, take at minimum a spoonful of your meat and rice mix to add it to the leaf. Do not overfill it! If you overfill it, the leaf will tear and you will have to start with a new leaf. With that being said, 2 spoonsful of mix will fill the roll nicely if one is not enough.

Once you’ve added the filling, start your roll by first folding over the side nearest you. You will fold it away from you to the point that it is closed over the mix. Next, fold in both the right and left sides. Now roll away from you neatly until you’ve reached the edge. After rolling, congratulate yourself for rolling your first Holubets! Yay!

Now, back to work: take your newly-rolled Holubets and place them into your Dutch oven on one side of the other.

Step 10: Layering your Holubtsi in the Dutch oven

Now that you’ve assembled your first Holubets, placing it at one end of the Dutch oven. As explained in the previous step, you are going to line up the Holubtsi one after the other in a straight line as if they were laying down for nap time. Now that you have your first row of Holubtsi sleeping peacefully next to each other, which should be 4-6 of them, take 2 Holubtsi and add them on either side of the neat row. You want to eliminate as much open space as possible so that they cook evenly in the oven.

Once you’ve filled the bottom of the Dutch oven, take those pesky torn leaves, which probably upset you earlier, and cover the Holubtsi as if you were putting a blanket over them. Nice and cozy. Now repeat the assembly process for the rest of the Holubtsi. You should have just about two layers of Holubtsi inside the Dutch oven. Cover the second layer the same way you covered the first with the spare and torn cabbage leaves. Now that both of your layers are lined up and tucked in, take whatever leaves are left over and fill in what open space there is on the second layer. Note that you don’t have to use all of them (if you want to use them for a different recipe), but if you do, then go for it!

Lastly, pour vegetable broth into the Dutch oven. The broth should reach just below the top of the second layer of Holubtsi so that both layers can infuse with all of the flavors of the stuffing and seasoning.

Step 11: Put your Holubtsi in the oven

This is the last step before you get to enjoy your first, and certainly not last, batch of Holubtsi! Your oven should have been preheated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover your Dutch oven, stick it into the preheated oven, and then set the timer for 1 hour. Once the hour is up your Holubtsi will be ready!

As a final note, sour cream is a traditional condiment for eating with Holubtsi, so if you can, I would 10/10 recommend adding some. However, if you can’t then don’t fret, they are your Holubtsi, so you can dress them up anyway you like.

I hope you enjoyed learning how to make this traditional cuisine from my culture. It’s my pleasure to share my culture whenever I can, especially when it comes to great food. You should be very proud of yourself for the work that you did. I hope that you’ll continue to find new ways to enjoy this beloved dish in your own unique ways. From my family to yours, thank you and be well!

–Roman V. Kovbasniuk

 

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