Bring on the humble haluski: Ethnic comfort food at its finest
Father Regis Ryan contemplates scores while The Great Haluski Cook-Off participants Willie Dawson Jr., Sandy Saban and Cynthia Haines look on.
By Sonja Reis
-Wandering Through Life-
What better way to honor the heritage of McKees Rocks — home to countless descendants of Eastern-European immigrants — than to hold a cooking contest featuring an ethnic dish from the region?
Haluski is comfort food at its finest. The simple dish made of noodles, cabbage and onions cooked in butter was the focus of a fun and uniquely regional cooking contest put on by the folks at Focus on Renewal (F.O.R.) and the Sto-Rox Public Library last week. Virtually, of course.
Thanks to a Hungarian grandmother who knew her way around the kitchen, I’ve been a fan of comfort foods since birth (or thereabouts). I saw no reason why I should not join State Rep. Anita Kulik and Father Regis Ryan in judging The Great Haluski Cook-Off.
What could be bad about tasting variations on what both the Ukrainian and Slovakian people claim as a national dish? Turns out, nothing. The F.O.R. contestants; Executive Director Cynthia Haines, and Board of Directors Willie Dawson Jr. and Sandy Saban whipped up piping hot platters of noodley goodness to tempt the tastebuds.
If that weren’t enough, the ladies went for extra points by dressing in Eastern-European garb. Dawson focused on presentation and a secret garnish.
The judges watched the action on a TV screen from the Father Ryan Arts Center gallery space as contestants got to work in the basement kitchen. Library Director Richard Ashby served as emcee for the event, poking fun at Ryan saying, “without him, we wouldn’t be here.”
When it was time to dig in, Haines offered up an “Italian twist” using gnocchi instead of egg noodles. Saban went the extra mile traveling to Ohio to purchase thick, wide “haluski noodles.” Dawson stuck to a family recipe called “cabbage and noodles” proving that sometimes simple homestyle cooking is the best.
A Stowe Township resident, Dawson ended up sweeping the competition, beating out the next closest contestant by 9 points.
He used his mother Viola Marie’s recipe. She was born in 1934, growing up in the depression era and came from a family of 21, while he himself grew up in a family of 10. Treated as a main course and not a side dish by the family, bits of bacon were always added to help stretch the meal and ensure “everyone got some meat.” The diced Granny Smith apples stirred in at the last minute add a dimension to this comfort dish I had never considered when tinkering with recipes in the kitchen. The tart crispness of the apple complements the sweet buttery noodles. You have to try it for yourself.
The dish hit the marks on appearance, aroma, consistency, taste and presentation. Dawson, and his mother who now lives in Southern California, both hope it will do the same for you:
VIOLA MARIE’S CABBAGE AND NOODLES
Start to finish in about 45 minutes.
“My mom always starts off when giving a recipe with ‘Get you some,’” said Dawson. So...
Get you some:
1 large onion
½ pound bacon
1 large head of cabbage
1 bag of egg noodles
2 Granny Smith apples
1 stick butter (divided)
½ teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon seasoning salt
1 tablespoon sea salt
You will need a large deep pan to fry the cabbage and a large pot for boiling the noodles.
Start by cutting up your bacon into about four pieces per strip. Brown the bacon in your large pan. Remove the bacon pieces and most of the excess grease. Hold grease for later.
Chop the onion in half and then strips. Place in the large pan over medium heat. Add the garlic powder.
Chop the cabbage head into fourths and remove the core of the cabbage. Continue chopping cabbage into bite-size pieces. Add about a tablespoon of the bacon grease back into the pan with the onions before adding the chopped cabbage.
Peel the apples and cut the skin in thin strips. Add the strips to the cabbage pot with half of the butter. Stir from the bottom mixing the onions throughout the dish. Cover and stir about every five minutes until the cabbage is Willie Dawson Jr. and his
mother Viola Marie Dawson.
slightly translucent. This should take about 30 minutes.
Fill your large pot with water according to the instruction on the noodle package. Add 1 tablespoon of black pepper, 1 tablespoon of seasoning salt and 1 tablespoon of sea salt. Bring the water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook as instructed on the package. When the noodles are done, drain and return to the pot. Stir in the other half stick of butter, pepper and seasoning salt.
Chop the apple into about ¼-inch cubes. Add the cabbage, onion, bacon and apples to the noddle pot, stir until well blended and serve.
Being included as a judge in the haluski competition was something I’ll always remember fondly. The event was second in a series of fun cook-offs being held virtually by F.O.R. as a way to bring the community together during the pandemic. The first event featured spaghetti and was held several months ago.
Plans for a chili cook-off are also in the works. Maybe by then, the community will be able to enjoy the tastes, sounds and smells of a hearty bowl of chili in person.
In the meanwhile, gather your supplies and cook up a delicious batch of Viola Marie’s Cabbage and Noodles. I promise you won’t be disappointed.