Family Histories on the Plate: A Cabbage Embrace

By Sean Kenniff

By

Sean Kenniff
Lillian's stuffed cabbage at Monteverde
Lillian's stuffed cabbage at Monteverde

Close your eyes. Taste your childhood and think about how you might serve that to your guests—to connect them with the people, foods, and experiences that shaped you as a chef. What can you alter, and what is sacrosanct? Where does your inner grandma insist on saltines, and your training dare you to drop a briquette of binchotan into a vat of oil? In Chicago, these three chefs have mined their taste memories and melded them into soulful, satisfying dishes. There’s no real blueprint for expressing soul on the plate, it just takes a confident leap, bridging the gap between Grandma Lillian and James Beard.

“This dish is a big hug,” says Chef Sarah Grueneberg. The hug is a generational one, passed down from her grandma Lillian, a Texas native of German ancestry, who expressed love through stuffed cabbage. At Monteverde, Grueneberg relies on her grandma’s technique but updates some of the ingredients (well, most of them) to bring the dish into the realm of Northern Italy and modern restaurant dining. It’s the binding that’s non-negotiable: “Saltines are the secret to the filling,” she says. Along with the Premium brand crackers, Grueneberg-the-younger stuffs the cruciferous packages with egg, onion, parmesan, and herbs. A rich, earthy porcini bolognese takes the place of a beefy ragout, and a fried egg and wedges of crunchy fried polenta top the dish. Grandma Lillian isn’t as concerned as her granddaughter with texture and presentation, but she did pass along the exacting standards and work ethic that have helped Grueneberg develop into one of the city’s most important and beloved chefs. “When [Lillian] ate at the restaurant, she told me, ‘You needed to do more of this.’ She’s critical. She likes my food, but she’s never satisfied.”

Get the recipe from Lllian's Stuffed Cabbage here.

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