Memories and Mothers

A meal from the heart

By Lucy Herrman
Posted 5/2/19

By Lucy Herrman Mother's Day is just around the corner, and for me that means memories of my Greek mother's cooking. To say that she was a great cook is an understatement. Although we lived in a …

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Memories and Mothers

A meal from the heart


Mother's Day is just around the corner, and for me that means memories of my Greek mother's cooking. To say that she was a great cook is an understatement. Although we lived in a modest Chicago bungalow, my mother thought nothing of throwing a panagirismos -- a fiesta to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or holiday -- with a buffet dinner for 50 or 60 of our closest Greek friends. She had two kitchens, one upstaiWrs and one in the basement, so she could manage all the different foods she planned to serve, too numerous to list. Let's just say her guests never went home hungry. My mother inspired me to begin cooking for the family when I was 11. In fact, I begged her to let me do it. She had me cooking simple dishes at first, and then taught me the more complicated ones when I was ready.

Over the years, I have been capturing the recipes for most of my Greek mother's specialties to pass them down to the next generation on my side of the family. My two sons, Jake and Nathaniel, take pride in their Greek heritage. They are fine cooks in their own rights, and have their own versions of some of the traditional foods. I realized, however, that someday they might look back at our traditional Greek family meals and want to know how to cook the originals. Good food is a big part of my mother's legacy, and I am gratified to have safeguarded it for my boys.

One of my mother's specialties was dolmades. My mother made the loveliest dolmades: dozens of grape leaves stuffed with rice and onions and cooked in a large heavy pot until tender. Sometimes she made a different version of grape leaves -- stuffed with meat and served hot with an egg-lemon (avgolemono) sauce. But preparing dolmades by hand, while not difficult, often requires hours of work. So my mother saved them them for special occasions.

Today, grape leaves stuffed with rice are wildly popular for appetizers or a light lunch. They are available ready to eat in the olive bars at the grocery store. But my mother would shake her head and say that store-bought cannot really compare to homemade. I tended to agree with her, and I still do.

My mother made other kinds of dolmades, too. The word dolma simply means a little stuffed wrap. My personal favorites were her stuffed cabbage rolls. Filled with a savory mixture of meat and rice and simmered for hours in a simple tomato sauce, her cabbage dolmades were the ultimate comfort food for me.

Food memories can lead to a reminiscence of our entire childhoods, even make us examine the paths our lives take. As with Marcel Proust's "taste of the madeleine," it was the memory of a cookie that inspired him to write his famous book "Remembrance of Things Past." Mama's cabbage rolls were to me what the madeleine was to Proust.

The first time I remember Mama cooking them, I was about 8 years old, and I couldn't get enough of this luscious, yummy new food. Mama was delighted, of course, because her motherly agenda was to get us to eat ("You girls are too skinny!") She was always happy to make them for us when asked, even years later when we had families of our own. And while I promised myself I'd get her recipe for the cabbage rolls, somehow the years passed, and I never really learned her process. And honestly, it weighed heavily on me.

So finally, I decided to do something about it. I'm a cook, aren't I? I know what they tasted like, right? Surely I could duplicate her recipe merely from my memory of those succulent morsels.

Well, the filling was easy, as I mostly knew the ingredients. Strangely enough, my biggest deterrent was not knowing how to separate the cabbage leaves from the head without tearing them. You think it might be easy, but it's not, unless you know the secret. And then I also needed to understand the cooking part once the rolls were formed.

So I began to do a little research. I had always assumed that my mother invented the concept of Greek cabbage rolls. You don't ever see them on a Greek restaurant menu. But it turned out that this humble country dish is popular in parts of Greece. With the help of the internet, I was able to figure out the techniques I needed. After a bit of experimenting, I feel I have been able to come very close to duplicating my mother's rolls. As promised, the recipe is quite easy, although it takes some time to prepare. But the time and effort is worth the result, especially to me.

And now, when I cook her stuffed cabbage dolmades, I remember Mama. And it brings me joy to be able to share this recipe with you. And maybe this Mother's Day, there is a special family recipe you would like to pass down to your kids!


Editor's note: Do you have a favorite family recipe you would like to share? Email it with a photo of the dish to We'll publish them in the next In the Kitchen section.




1 medium head cabbage

1 pound ground beef

1/2 cup short grain rice, uncooked

1 large onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon dried dill

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon dried mint

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

1-1/2 cups tomato sauce

2 bay leaves

In a large stock pot, boil enough water to submerge the cabbage head. Remove the outer layers of the cabbage and discard. Cut out as much of the core as you can. Boil the entire cabbage for 10-15 minutes until the leaves are tender and can be easily removed. Place cabbage in a colander and drain.

In a large mixing bowl, combine remaining ingredients except tomato sauce, bay leaves and olive oil. Mix well and set aside.

Carefully remove the cabbage leaves from the head one by one; do not tear them. Lay the cabbage leaf stem side down. Remove any thick spine remaining. Place a portion of the meat mixture on the bottom center of the leaf. Leave room for the sides of the leaf to fold inwards toward the center. Roll cabbage leaf tightly around the filling and place in a tight row in a large Dutch oven with lid. Combine the olive oil and the tomato sauce and gently pour over the rows, adding enough water to barely cover. Sprinkle the bay leaves over the top. Invert a heatproof plate over the rolls and press it down to keep them submerged during cooking.

Bring the liquid to a boil and then reduce the heat and simmer covered for approximately 1-1/2 to 2 hours, or until the leaves are tender and the filling is cooked.

Makes about 2 dozen rolls.


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