December 8, 2011

Cabbage Rolls for Tony

Tony played the trumpet. Tony played the piano. And often, with enough cajoling, he would play a round of scrabble or dominoes too. Especially if his odds looked good.

Tony came into my life when I met my husband–an added bonus to our relationship that I often joked was what kept me around. He was full of spunk, good stories, and always perfectly timed words of advice. He had the impeccable ability to command a room in a most casual and comfortable way. And spending time with him felt bubbly like champagne mixed with the excitement of a lucky lottery ticket. Two innocent vices we often allowed ourselves when in his presence.

Tony loved me like his own grandchildren. He called me beautiful–even when I showed up in sweat pants without showering. He reveled in my successes and supported me in my challenges. And though Tony loved salt (we even found an old bottle of MSG in his cupboard at his cabin), he sweetly joined me in many of my low-sodium meals. Sometimes asking for the salt shaker, but often enjoying the food enough that not a grain touched his plate. Which always felt like a great accomplishment and an even greater compliment.

Last Thursday, my mother and I decided to whip up Tony one of his old favorites: stuffed cabbage. A recipe that his beloved wife often made him. A recipe that my grandfather loved as well. A recipe that I have in my possession, passed down from my great grandmother, that doesn’t contain one useful piece of measurement. Just handfuls and pinches and glasses of water. Classic.

And this Wednesday, Tony passed away.

In some ways, it was a reality we all knew would come. Some day. But because Tony was still so full of life, full of trumpet playing, movie watching, book devouring, and cabbage eating–no one imagined it could be this day.

He will be missed.

But whether it is a plate of steamed cabbage filled with seasoned beef, warmed by a blanket of thick tomato sauce, or a winning scratcher ticket, or the sound of brass horns singing the blues, Tony will never be far.

As a wise man, he understood that the important moments were those shared with family and friends. Many of which occurred around a table, big or small, in the city or in the woods. And it is the traditions we create, edible and otherwise, that always live on.

So during these holidays, dig up a dish whose smells and savoriness recall someone you love. And if feel free to use my grandmother’s cabbage rolls to get started. Or start a tradition of your own.

In a strange twist of coincidences, my grandfather also passed away this time last year. For more words on life and loss and all the moments in between, feel free to also check out this link.

Great Grandma’s Measurement-Less Cabbage Rolls


  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 large head of cabbage
  • 1 handful of rice
  • 1 small glass of water
  • 1 slice toasted no-salt added bread
  • 1 onion
  • 1 can of no-salt added tomatoes
  • 1 can no-salt added tomato sauce
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • Lemon juice

Soften cabbage by immersing in boiling water for several minutes. The leaves should be easy to remove but not too cooked. Remove from water and when cool enough to touch, remove leaves and lay them out to dry.

Meanwhile, mix the raw meat with the uncooked rice, water, stale soaked bread, grated onion, and ground black pepper to taste. (Sodium Girl Tip: add some cayenne, curry powder, smoke paprika, salt-free garlic or onion powder, and herb blends to spice it up).

To stuff your cabbage, place a small mound of meat at the top of the cabbage leaf. Fold in the sides and roll. Continue until all the meat is used up. Or make meatballs with any leftovers.

In large pot add the canned no-salt added tomatoes, tomato sauce, sugar and lemon juice. Add the cabbage rolls to sauce and cook at low temp for about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Remove, eat, and enjoy.



Karsha December 8, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Soooo sorry for your loss, Jess. But how wonderful that Tony got to enjoy one last homemade cabbage roll. Sending good thoughts to you and the hubs.

Susan Devitt December 14, 2011 at 8:57 am

Jess, your story is both sweet and sad. It sounds like Tony lived and died like we all would like to, loved and leaving unexpectedly at the end. I’m sorry.

jessg23 December 15, 2011 at 9:46 am

Thank you, Susan! He is a great example of how to make the most of life.

Cupcake December 21, 2011 at 7:29 am

I’ve only now had the wherewithall to read your loving tribute to Grandpa Tony. Thank you for this beautiful post and salute to a gentle man who loved us all so well, who never lost his love of learning or his sense of adventure. He remains with us still in every breath we take, every beat of our heart and every tasty bite we eat, with or without sodium! I love you.

Dana Rock @Rock That Mobile July 24, 2012 at 7:25 pm

WOW! This recipe was excellent! We feed our elderly grandparents daily as sort of a keep it in the family “meal on wheels” sort of deal. Both need an as close to zero diet as possible. Thank you for helping to make this possible!

We substituted the beef for ground turkey and it turned out great – I can see the beef adding even more savory sensations.

Thank you thank you, and I highly recommend this dish!

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