Creating The Veselka Cookbook was a labor of love for Tom Birchard and Natalie Danford.
JON STEWART has professed his love for it. Singer Greta Gertler has written a song about it. Veselka, a small Ukrainian restaurant in New Yorks East Village, has earned a loyal following in its 55 years of business. Fans of the restaurant, which has remained steadfastly at its location at Ninth Street and Second Avenue since its opening in 1954, rave about the service (friendly and familiar), the environment (comfortable and homey), and the menu (exhaustive and delicious).
Many times over the years, owner Tom Birchard -- who took over the eatery when founder Wolodymyr Darmochwal, his then-father-in-law, passed away in 1975 -- considered writing a cookbook of Veselkas famous recipes, which include traditional Ukrainian and Polish favorites like borscht and pierogi as well as American comfort-food favorites. But he always ended up dismissing the idea.
It seemed like a daunting task, he says. I rely on a group of Ukrainian women [cooks] who were taught by their families. They dont use recipes.
But when Birchard met Natalie Danford, a writer and an American Way contributor, the idea suddenly seemed within reach. The restaurant -- and in turn, the book -- had special significance for Danford, a Manhattan transplant who has lived blocks from Veselka for nearly 20 years.
Like almost everyone who moves to New York, it seems, I discovered Veselka very soon after arriving, she says. I came from Italy, and I hated how restaurants here would rush you so much. Veselka felt like Italy, because you could sit for as long as you liked and leave when you were ready.
After 18 months of documenting the recipes (with the help of Veselka pastry chef Lisa Straub), converting them from restaurant quantities to more manageable serving sizes, and testing them for taste, The Veselka Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Landmark Restaurant in New Yorks East Village (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press, $28) has finally come to fruition. It features more than 150 recipes along with engaging anecdotes from the restaurants illustrious history and a foreword by Stewart.
For Birchard, the book is more than a dream realized; its a tribute to Darmochwal, the customers, and the restaurant that has come to mean so much to him. [When I was younger], I just thought Id do this until I figured out what I wanted to do. And Im still here, Birchard says. Over the years, Ive discovered a real passion for food and for nurturing people and creating a welcoming, homey place. Im very proud of what Veselka has turned into.
The Veselka Cookbooks Meat Stuffed Cabbage
Makes 24 pieces, about 8 servings
Making stuffed cabbage -- whether with this meat filling or the vegetarian mushroom and rice filling [AW note: This recipe is included in The Veselka Cookbook] -- isnt difficult, but its a multi-step process. You can make the filling up to a couple days in advance, and the stuffed cabbage is actually better if it cools in the pot overnight in the refrigerator. And you may be pleasantly surprised to discover how pliable and easy to work with the cabbage leaves are when you use the freezing technique we use at the restaurant.
2 very large heads green cabbage
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 cups short-grain white rice
1 onion, diced
3 1/2 pounds ground pork
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 cups chicken stock [AW note: An optional chicken-stock recipe is also included in the book.]
1. At least one day before you want to make the stuffed cabbage, core the heads of cabbage. Place cabbage in a large plastic freezer bag and freeze.
2. The next day, bring 2 cups water to a boil in a medium pot. Add the salt and 2 tablespoons butter. Slowly sprinkle in the rice, then stir once, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes, undisturbed. Check the rice and cook a little longer to absorb all the water, if necessary. When the rice is cooked, set it aside to cool.
3. Sauté the diced onions in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, stirring occasionally, until they are a deep, rich brown, about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
4. In a large bowl, combine the cooked and cooled rice, the cooked and cooled onions, the pork, and the pepper. Gradually add the chicken stock in small amounts while mixing the mixture by hand. The mixture should be moist, but not soupy, and there should be no liquid in the bottom of the bowl. You may not need all the stock, or even any of it -- this can be very variable.
5. When you are ready to stuff the cabbage, pull the cabbage out of the freezer. Fill a large bowl with warm water and place the cabbage in the water to defrost. When the leaves are pliable, peel them off the head one at a time and set them aside, being careful not to tear them. If a few do tear, reserve those for the bottom of the pot.
6. Place 3 or 4 leaves (including any torn ones) in the bottom of a very large pot. On top of the leaves place a heat-resistant plate or overturned pie pan or flat-bottomed steamer basket that sits about 1 inch above the bottom of the pot.
7. Place one cabbage leaf on the work surface. Place about 1/2 cup of stuffing in the center of the leaf and fold it envelope style to enclose the filling. Turn the leaf over and place it seam-side down in the pot on top of the plate or pie pan or steamer basket. Repeat with remaining leaves and filling. As you fold each leaf, tuck it tightly up against the others in the pot in a single layer. They should be touching on all sides and wedged together very firmly. When youve made one layer of cabbage packets, continue with a second layer on top, and so on until you have used up all the leaves and filling. Depending on the size of your pot, you will probably have 4 or 5 layers of packets.
8. Add enough water to fill the pot about 5 inches up the side. Cover, and place over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes to build up some steam, then lower and steam the cabbage until the leaves are tender and the pork mixture is cooked through, about 1 1/2 hours. Keep an eye on the water in the bottom of the pot to be sure it doesnt dry out; add a little extra water as the cabbage cooks if necessary.
9. Allow the cabbage to cool in the pot, preferably overnight in the refrigerator, but at least for a couple of hours. This keeps the packets from unfurling when you remove them. Serve with either tomato sauce or mushroom sauce. [AW note: Optional recipes for both sauces are included in the book.]
Reprinted with permission from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press.