Falling for cool-weather comfort foods

Special to the Coastal Point • Marie Cook : Tony Packo’s Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls, Packo’s Tomato-Onion Sauce and Cheddar-Black Pepper Biscuits are on the menu for Marie Cook as she features cool-weather comfort foods in this special installment of Marie’s Kitchen.Special to the Coastal Point • Marie Cook : Tony Packo’s Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls, Packo’s Tomato-Onion Sauce and Cheddar-Black Pepper Biscuits are on the menu for Marie Cook as she features cool-weather comfort foods in this special installment of Marie’s Kitchen.Back in February, when I stopped writing this column twice-monthly, Darin and I agreed that I would pop in now and then, when the spirit moved me. I ended my regular column to concentrate on writing two books that had languished way too long. The writing is going well, and I thank all those who tell me that they miss my column and talk about the recipes that have become regulars in their cooking rotations.

To spend more time writing, I’ve cut back on marathon cooking sessions, keeping meals simple: broiled or sautéed fish; ground lamb, turkey or beef burgers mixed with lots of red onion and feta cheese; a meatless pasta meal with salad; sides of baked sweet potatoes and steamed or roasted vegetables. Easy? Yes. Healthy? Yes. Boring? You bet! With cooler weather setting in, I’m craving comfort food.

So, it seemed providential that just last week, while sitting in my dermatologist’s waiting room, I overheard two women talking about stuffed cabbage. They agreed that making a huge pot of cabbage rolls was too much work, so they agreed to split the cost of ingredients and work together in one kitchen. Since most recipes make eight to 12 servings, they’d each have plenty.

At this point, those of you who know me through seven years of writing this column would expect me to butt into their conversation. How I contained myself is beyond me, because I possess the premier stuffed cabbage recipe.

I began ruminating on where the recipe was located in my gargantuan collection. And when I found it, would my writing suffer if I climbed out of my rut and spent too much time in the kitchen? My mother used to say: “Trouble will find us soon enough. Let’s not go looking for it.”

In the late 1980s, I lived on the east side of Toledo, Ohio, near the Maumee River. Why I lived there is a story for another day. I don’t watch much TV, but back in the day, my all-time favorite television program was “MASH,” starring Alan Alda, which aired from 1972 to 1983.

The setting was in the 4077th Army surgical hospital during the Korean War. Cpl. Maxwell Q. Klinger (later Sgt. Klinger) always made me laugh. He habitually dressed in women’s clothing and engaged in crazy stunts, trying to gain a Section 8 psychiatric discharge from the Army. All attempts failed, but never at the expense of his duties.

You may be asking how any of this relates to my premier stuffed cabbage recipe.

Well, Klinger (Jamie Farr), was of Arab-American-Lebanese descent and hailed from Toledo, Ohio. On the show, he often talked about Toledo and how he craved his favorite hot dog from his favorite restaurant — Tony Packo’s. Hot dogs at Packo’s were more like brats: huge, chili-topped Hungarian hot dogs. Other specialties included their famous stuffed cabbage rolls and strudel.

The first day I lived in Toledo, I went out for an early-morning 3-mile run. Who knew! Just two blocks from my house, and I was running by Tony Packo’s Restaurant. I peeked in the window and saw several guys in the kitchen removing huge heads of cabbage from boiling water to begin making the rolls.

You see, this was a Hungarian neighborhood and no one ever said the whole thing — Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls. They just said “rolls,” and you knew what they meant.

Later that day, I entered Packo’s and purchased some rolls to go. I went back the next day, effusive with praise. The word “foodie” had not yet been invented, but those of us who are passionate about cooking good food to feed those we love develop an instant bond. Ta-da! I left the restaurant with their famous recipe in hand.

When I got home from the dermatologist’s office, I found the recipe, bought the ingredients and made the rolls all by myself. It would have been much more fun to have a sidekick help me, because when I was done, I looked around for the person who was going to clean up my mess of pots, pans, bowls and cutting boards. But the only two hands in Marie’s Kitchen dangled from my own wrists.

Many hands make light work, so the next time you have a huge cooking project and you can’t muster up the energy to go it alone, remember to invite a pal to join you in the kitchen. (My email is at the end of this column.) Just as there are sleepovers for young girls, I call cooking with a friend a “cookover.”

The original recipe recommends coring the cabbage before you boil it, but I’ve found it’s much easier to boil the whole cabbage for 12 minutes to soften before coring.

Tony Packo’s Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Cabbage Rolls:

• 1 very large head of cabbage (at least 3 pounds)

• 2 large eggs

• 2 medium onions, finely chopped and divided

• 2 garlic cloves, minced

• 2 teaspoons salt, divided

• 2 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika, divided

• 1 teaspoon black pepper, divided

• 2 pounds lean ground beef, or 1 pound ground pork and 1 pound ground beef (I prefer all beef.)

• 1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice

• 1 pound sauerkraut, drained, but not rinsed

• One 16-ounce can tomatoes, cut up, with their juice (Back in the day, petite diced tomatoes did not exist. They do now, so this step is quick as a wink.)

• 1 can (10-3/4 ounces) condensed tomato soup

• 2 tablespoons sugar

Tomato-Onion Sauce

• 2 small onions, chopped

• 1 tablespoon real butter

• One 16-ounce can tomatoes, cut up, with their juice (Again, use petite diced.)

Method for Rolls:

Bring a large kettle of water to a boil. Core the cabbage (or not, as noted above), immerse in the boiling water and cook, uncovered, for about 10 to 12 minutes to wilt the leaves. Using a slotted spoon, remove the cabbage from the water; let cool slightly. Carefully remove about 12 large leaves from the cabbage and, with a sharp knife, cut out the large center vein from each with a small triangular cut.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs, 1/2 cup chopped onions, garlic, one teaspoon salt, one teaspoon paprika and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Add the meat and rice and mix well. Place about 1/3 cup of the meat mixture on one of the 12 prepared leaves. Fold in the long sides, then carefully roll up each leaf. Repeat with the remaining leaves and filling.

Chop the remaining cabbage. In a large bowl, combine the chopped cabbage, sauerkraut, tomatoes with juice, tomato soup, sugar and the remaining chopped onion, salt, paprika and pepper.

The uncooked rice expands during cooking, so I recommend using an 8-quart heavy kettle or Dutch oven (not aluminum). Spoon half of the sauerkraut mixture evenly in the bottom. Arrange the cabbage rolls, seam-side down, over the sauerkraut mixture. (Pack them together tightly.)

Spoon the remaining sauerkraut mixture over the rolls. Add enough water to cover the rolls and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about two hours, adding more water as needed to keep the rolls covered. Yield: 8 to 12 servings.

Method for Tomato-Onion Sauce:

You may not want to mess with the Tomato-Onion Sauce, but when you ordered rolls from Packo’s, they topped them with the sauce. In tribute to those kind cooks who generously shared this famous recipe with me, I would never serve my rolls without the sauce.

In a small saucepan, mix chopped onions with one tablespoon real butter and one 16-ounce can petite diced tomatoes with juice. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to a simmer. When ready to plate the rolls, top each with a generous tablespoon of the sauce.

Sometimes I serve cabbage rolls with mashed potatoes, but this time I served them with Cheddar-Black Pepper Biscuits. They’re a bit messy to make, but worth the effort. Don’t overwork the dough, or the biscuits will be tough. I’m a pepper lover, so I always top the biscuits with more pepper than the recipe recommends.

As you can see in the photo, these are dainty little morsels. Sometimes I make tea sandwiches by carefully slicing them in half and spreading with cream cheese, topped with thinly sliced cucumbers. Another option is to slice and fill with small portions of turkey, chicken or tuna salad.

Cheddar-Black Pepper Biscuits

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.


• 2 cups all-purpose flour

• 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

• 1/4 teaspoon salt

• 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper, divided

• 2 tablespoons chilled stick butter, cut into small pieces

• 3/4 cup (3 ounces) shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese

• 3/4 cup whole milk

• Cooking spray

• 1 egg white, lightly beaten

Method for Cheddar-Black Pepper Biscuits:

Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a bowl; cut in butter with a pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add cheese; toss well. Add milk, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened.

Turn dough out onto a well-floured surface, and knead four or five times. Roll dough to 1/2-inch thickness; cut with a 2-inch decorative cookie cutter. (I used a small juice glass, which was totally not decorative, but it did the trick.)

Place biscuits an inch apart on a large baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Brush with egg white and sprinkle with remaining pepper. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned.

Yield: About 1-1/2 dozen biscuits. (The recipe says that one biscuit is a serving — 86 calories. But if you can eat just one, please tell me your secret.)

One of my favorite old cookbooks, the “Bentley Farm Cookbook,” written in 1974 by Virginia Williams Bentley (recipes from a New England kitchen), is hand-written by the author. I read cookbooks for enjoyment, not just for the recipes, so paging through a 368-page hand-written cookbook is a joy. Bentley’s recipe for Baked Apple & Onion is one of my favorites. This casserole must bake for at least three hours, so plan ahead.

Baked Apple & Onion

Preheat oven to a little over 300 degrees F.


• Apples, peeled and sliced

• Onions, peeled and sliced into rings

• Brown sugar

• Salt

• Butter

• Crumbs (bread or cracker)

Method for Baked Apple and Onion:

Butter a casserole dish — size depending on number to be served. Put in a layer of apples, then a layer of onion rings. Sprinkle generously with brown sugar and sparingly with salt. Repeat the layers until the dish is heaping. (The apples and onions shrink, so you really need to heap it up.)

Top with crumbs and generous dabs of real butter. Cover. Bake slowly, a little over 300 degrees for about three hours. The longer it’s baked, the better it is. Uncover for the last half hour so the crumbs will brown and juices evaporate somewhat. An unbeatable accompaniment for almost any meat dish.

Speaking of onions, my Sweet Onion Pie is perfect on a brunch buffet; it also goes great with a mixed greens salad. Any sweet onion in season will work. You can make this pie ahead of when you plan to serve it and reheat by the piece or by the whole shebang in a 300-degree oven.

Sweet Onion Pie

Prepare and partially bake a crust to fit a 9-inch pan.


• 4 sweet onions, peeled and sliced thin

• 2 tablespoons olive oil

• 2 tablespoons real butter

• 2 eggs

• 1 cup half-and-half

• 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 1/8 teaspoon pepper

• Pinch of nutmeg

• 2 ounces Swiss cheese, grated and divided

Method for Sweet Onion Pie:

Sauté onions in oil and butter over very low heat until golden — about 20 to 30 minutes.

Beat together eggs, half-and-half, flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg, then add onions and one-half the grated cheese. Pour into crust; sprinkle remaining cheese on top and bake at 375 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Yield: Depends on how you slice it.

Baked Cauliflower in Cheese Sauce is one of our favorites. Because it takes little time to put together and serves six to eight, I kept this recipe in my rotation these past months. The leftovers taste just as good the next day, reheated at 300 degrees. Sometimes I use a half head of cauliflower and half head of broccoli.

Baked Cauliflower in Cheese Sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.


• 1 large head cauliflower

• 3 tablespoons butter

• 1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

• 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

• 6 tablespoons flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill Sweet White Rice Flour — gluten-free.)

• 2 cups whole milk

• 2 cups grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, divided

• 1/2 teaspoon each salt and black pepper

• 3/4 cup sliced almonds, ground

Method for Baked Cauliflower
in Cheese Sauce:

Cut cauliflower into bite-size pieces and steam until just tender. While it is steaming, melt the butter and add the red pepper flakes and garlic powder. Add the flour and mix until smooth and thickened. Mix in the milk a bit at a time, stirring each time until smooth. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until thick and creamy (this takes a while). Add 1 cup cheese and stir until melted.

Remove sauce from heat and add salt and pepper.

Spread the steamed cauliflower in a 9-by-13-by-2-inch casserole. Pour the cheese sauce evenly over the cauliflower and then sprinkle with the remaining one cup of cheese. Top with the ground almonds.

Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees until cheese is melted. Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

No comfort-food column would be complete without a meatloaf recipe. I’m trying to limit the amount of red meat in our diet, so I now make Jennie-O Brand Turkey Meatloaf, thanks to my friend and massage therapist, Dana Kylen. (If you’re looking for a terrific massage therapist, give Dana a call at 302-539-8199. Tell her Marie sent you.)

When she told me how delicious this recipe was, I went to the Jennie-O website and downloaded the recipe. Dana doesn’t cook very often, so when I make this meatloaf, I make two and share one with her. The recipe says to top with 1/2 cup ketchup, but my mom always combined brown sugar and ketchup to top meatloaves, so that’s what I do, too.

These meatloaves freeze very well. The recipe directs you to put the turkey mixture into an 8-by-4-inch loaf pan. I don’t do that. I free-form my turkey loaf and place it on a baking sheet sprayed with non-stick spray. Works just fine. Makes great sandwiches!

Jennie-O Brand Turkey Meatloaf

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.


• 2 tablespoons butter

• 1 cup chopped onion

• 3 cloves garlic, minced

• 1 (20-ounce) package Jennie-O lean ground turkey

• 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs (I use gluten-free.)

• 1 egg, slightly beaten

• 3/4 cup ketchup, divided

• 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

• Salt is optional

Method for Turkey Meatloaf:

Melt butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer mixture to a large bowl; cool 5 minutes.

Add ground turkey, breadcrumbs, egg, 1/4 cup ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, pepper and salt, if desired; mix well. Press into an 8-by-4-inch loaf pan. Spread remaining 1/2 cup ketchup over top.

Bake one hour at 350 degrees, or until the internal temperature of meatloaf is well done — 165 degrees F. as measured by a meat thermometer. Let stand at room temperature for 5 minutes before slicing.

Peace and love to all!

Editor’s note: If you have recipes to share, or recipes you want, contact Marie Cook, Coastal Point, P.O. Box 1324, Ocean View, DE 19970; or by email at ChefMarieCook@gmail.com. Please include your phone number. Recipes in this column are not tested by the Coastal Point.)