We had just gotten an enormous cabbage from our neighbor’s garden and I was contemplating using the outer leaves to make lahano-dolmades –stuffed cabbage leaves— or maybe my simpler stuffed cabbage logs.
Then I saw Ozlem Warren’s recipe for kapuska, a kind of de-constructed stuffed cabbage leaves, where cabbage, ground meat and bulgur are braised together. I also remembered that in my book The Foods of the Greek Islands (published in 2000) I had a kapuska recipe from Chios; it was pork with cabbage in a fragrant, and spicy tomato sauce.
Here is what I wrote in the head-note:
“This dish is called kapuska in Olympi, an unspoiled medieval village on the island of Chios. The word is probably Slavic, and it is also used in Turkey for a similar dish. During the last century, many Chians, especially people from this particular village, lived and prospered in Istanbul. Kapuska was most likely one of the dishes they brought with them when they returned to their island. The dish is flavored with a homemade fragrant spice mixture called aspetsa, which contains mainly hot peppers and dried herbs, including oregano, basil and mint, along with dried orange peel. The recipe has probably survived in this village —the only place I have seen it— since the time of the Genoese.”
I have revisited that wonderful herb and spice mixture from Chios, and published the latest variation in my Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts (page 55). I called it Aegean Herb and Hot Pepper Mix and, besides Maras pepper, it contains oregano, fennel seeds, a little cumin, dried basil and dried mint, as well as dried and ground orange peel which is very different from the fresh orange zest.
In the winter, when we get local oranges from our neighbor’s garden, I peel stripes with a vegetable peeler and let them dry on a towel in my kitchen. These I grind together with the fennel seeds to make the spice mixture which I use in many dishes.
But in yesterday’s kapuska, inspired by Ozlem’s recipe, I decided to just use Maras pepper and dried mint, as she suggests; the result was wonderful and unexpected, as I had never thought of adding mint to cooked cabbage. But my Albanian friends find it absolutely normal. Dried mint is the winter herb they love to add to all kinds of meat or vegetable dishes.
“I love kapuska / kapusta. I cook mine with half sour kraut and half braised cabbage. The tangy result is pretty great. If you want to take this Polish stew a step further, check out the ‘bigos’ tradition. It’s an incredible dish..”
How intriguing, I thought, and surfing the web I found lots of recipes for kapuska and I saved the simpler one with raw cabbage and a more elaborate from Saveur with sauerkraut and diced tart apples. Both these have lots of pork and smoked kielbasa sausage. But the spicing I found particularly interesting: caraway, allspice and bay leaves; I will certainly try it next time when I make the version Sayat suggested, adding some of my fruity, pink fermented cabbage, a combination of white and red cabbage, which we usually eat together with our green salads in the winter.
I doubt, though, that these spices will create a better flavored kapuska than the simple dried mint.