My great grandmother, who we called “Grammy,” was from Lithuania. I was very lucky to have been able to meet her. I only wish I had appreciated my time with her more and gotten to know her a little before she passed away.
I can remember my family trying to take a picture of all of the kids together with her when she turned 102, but I had a temper tantrum due to my fear of the elderly and I refused to be a part of it. I feel pretty terrible about that now, but to be fair I was probably 5 years old, maybe even younger. Recent events have inspired my entire family to begin to unearth our family history and I’m happy to say that I feel closer to Grammy now than I did at that young age when she was actually alive.
My brother, Scott, recently found some recordings of my grandmother and Grammy (her mother). Some were in English and some in her native language, which we are still trying to have translated. We listened to one of these recordings after dinner one evening to hear the tale of when Grammy saved her family’s flock of geese.
As a child, Grammy was a herder, which I always assumed meant she was herding sheep. Surprise- Grammy herded geese. She tells the story about how a gypsy came up to her and told her to go have lunch while they watched the flock, but she refused. Even being only a kid, Grammy stood her ground even though the gypsy was persistent. She sounded very proud telling this story. Listening to it made me feel like I was developing a connection with her that I was never able to develop as a child.
Scott has just planned an entire trip to visit the village my great grandmother is from, and to explore Lithuania. Lucky for him, he managed to connect with two students in an English PhD program over there that were willing to go on a road trip with him. While planning his trip, he came across another interesting detail: While looking for a car to rent, he came across a site that offered not just cars, but wooden carts pulled by horses. I have been getting updates daily on what an incredible place Lithuania is to visit and how friendly the people are….but what I’m most interested in is the food.
So far, Scott has told me about the cold beetroot soup with hot boiled potatoes, a drink that’s primary ingredient is rye bread, and the cepelinai (zeppelins). My brother also asked a local at his hostel about what she likes to eat. Her response was potatoes and meat, which sounds a lot like Poland if you ask me. Turns out, the two countries actually have a lot of overlapping food traditions with their own special variations.
I was thinking about making cepelinai for this Cultural Cooking episode, but decided to go a different route. In my research, I kept coming across recipes for something called Kugelis. Kugelis is a potato, onion, bacon, egg mixture that is perfect as a side dish, a main course, or even as a breakfast meal. Something about it is so comforting and just warms your soul. The other thing I learned about this recipe is that nobody makes it the same way. So, what I did to create my recipe was read about 20 different recipes for Kugelis, pick out the main ingredients that were most commonly used, and then changed them for healthier options.
I was also very excited to find that Lithuania was into stuffed cabbage. I personally know stuffed cabbage as golabki (go-wump-key), which is a Polish dish, but again, many of the foods that I love from Poland overlap with Lithuanian cuisine. Lithuania has their very own version of stuffed cabbage called “Balandėliai.” This one was easy to create my own recipe for since I’ve eaten stuffed cabbage a million times and know the flavors.
This meal all together is what I would consider comfort food heaven.
Kugelis (Makes 6 servings):
1.5 lbs shredded potato
1 small onion
8oz center cut bacon or Canadian bacon
6 oz fat-free evaporated milk
2 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp whole wheat flour
salt & pepper
1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2) Peel the potatoes and shred them using a grater (you can probably use a food processor with a grating blade as well), then wring out the potatoes.
3) Grate the onion and keep separate from the potato.
4) Dice the bacon and toss in a skillet that’s been sprayed with cooking spray. Once it starts to crisp, drain the grease until there’s just a little in the pan (about 1-2 tsp).
5) Add the onion in with the bacon and cook until it begins to brown.
6) While the onion cooks, mix the evaporated milk, beaten eggs, flour, salt and pepper with the potatoes.
7) When the bacon and onion is done, DO NOT drain it! Mix it all into the potato mixture.
8) Pour the mixture into 6 sprayed ramekins or one small baking dish. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until all the liquid is gone.
9) Top with light sour cream or applesauce. Chives might be a great topping with the sour cream also.
Balandėliai (makes about 16 cabbage rolls)
20 oz ground turkey (93% lean)
1 onion, diced
6 slices center cut bacon
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup brown rice, uncooked
1 cup water
1 small head of cabbage
1 tsp caraway seeds
2 tsp paprika
1/4 cup egg whites
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 cup fat-free low sodium beef broth
1 cup tomato juice or tomato sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1) Cook the rice using one cup brown rice, one cup water.
2) Dice the bacon slices and toss them in the skillet to crisp up. Add the onion once the bacon is starting to look crispy, then set aside to cool (do not wipe out the pan).
3) Bring a pot of water to a boil.
4) Cut the cabbage in half, removing the core. Boil the cabbage for about 5 minutes, then remove and immediately run under cold water in a colander.
5) Gently remove the leaves of cabbage, trying to keep them as whole as possible (you can also do this step as the turkey cooks in the next step). *See notes below if you’re struggling with keeping the leaves whole.
6) Cook the ground turkey so it’s no longer pink, then add the minced garlic, paprika, caraway seeds, oregano, salt and pepper.
7) Mix the turkey, rice, and bacon mixture all together in a bowl and set aside to cool.
8) Once the turkey mixture is cool enough to handle, mix in the egg whites to help hold the mixture together.
9) Carefully fill each cabbage leaf with the mixture. Roll and fold each stuffed leaf, then place in a large baking dish, seam side down.
10) Mix the beef broth and tomato juice together and pour over the cabbage rolls. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 1 hour.
*If you’re struggling to remove the leaves in whole pieces or are feeling lazy, you can easily chop the cabbage up and mix it with the filling to make an Unstuffed Cabbage Casserole. The rest of the steps should stay the same.
Both of these recipes came out so good! I imagine these comfort foods may be part of the reason why my Grammy lived to be 102 years old.I was extremely happy with both of these dishes and will definitely be making them again. I think I may also look into other Lithuanian dishes to try making after my brother raved about their food when he was traveling.
My favorite part about the stuffed cabbage was the caraway seeds. I grew up on cabbage with caraway seeds and bacon as a side dish growing up, and this main course definitely takes me back there. I think these cabbage rolls would also freeze well for future meals.
As for the Kugelis, this was my first time trying it. My boyfriend tried a helping with sour cream on top and immediately went back for seconds. It is extremely comforting. We have yet to try it with the applesauce on top, but the sour cream was delicious. I can totally see this being a great side dish or even breakfast dish. This would also be a great dish to bring to a potluck brunch. As a variation, I might consider adding some fresh herbs to it although traditional Kugelis doesn’t use any herbs.
This is the last installment of my “Discovering My Heritage Through Cooking” series. I have learned so much about the cultures my ancestors are from by cooking the food they grew up on. This series has also inspired me to visit these countries myself to see the places my family came from and explore their traditional foods further. I think this was a great learning experience and would be great for anyone to try in order to learn more about their own roots.
What are your favorite foods that represent your heritage?
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