This is the last post in my recent series on comfort food recipes. I wrote this series to memorialize, share and celebrate a handful of worthy recipes from family and friends. The first post features a simple American chicken braise (here); the second explores an Italian spinach gnocco (here). Today’s recipe makes an Armenian fermented cabbage, wheat berry and beef stew called tutoo (sometimes spelled tutu and tatoo). The recipe comes from my paternal grandmother who was the only member of my family that made this dish because, I’m guessing, the fermentation process scared away anyone else in my family interested in making it. In truth, once you get comfortable with fermenting the cabbage, the recipe is a snap. Hopefully, this post demystifies the process and encourages you to make this unique and comforting Armenian stew.
Tutoo means sour in Armenian, and the stew can live up to its name. The dish includes both fermented cabbage and the brine used to pickle the cabbage. Most Armenian cookbooks and on-line recipes call for a 10-day fermentation period. This duration might be perfectly fine depending upon one’s taste, but my family likes its tutoo really sour. My dad will sometimes squeeze lemon juice into his stew if it doesn’t meet his sour threshold. To keep the lemons at bay, I let the cabbage ferment for around 21 days.
My grandmother made her tutoo without a written recipe. My grandfather adored the stew, so she knew the recipe by heart. In order to learn how to make it, I filmed my grandmother while she prepared the cabbage to ferment and again when she cooked the stew. During the filming, she patiently waited as I measured out all the ingredients. Since that time—over 20 years past as I write this post—I have converted the amounts of the brining ingredients from volumes to metric weights, which I think produces more consistent results.
For the Fermented Cabbage
90 grams sea salt
3 kilograms water
45 grams hard red wheat berries
5 grams sugar
55 grams champagne vinegar
3 heads small-sized cabbage, cored and cut into 1/8-inch wedges
1) In a large pot, add the salt and water and bring to a boil. Cool the brine to 120ºF.
2) While the brine cools, rinse the wheat berries and put them into a wide-mouth 1-gallon glass jar. Add the sugar and vinegar. Tightly pack the cabbage wedges into the jar. As you work your way to the top of the jar you may need to cut the wedges into smaller pieces. Don’t worry if you cannot fit all three heads of cabbage into the jar; tightly pack in as much of the cabbage as possible.
3) Pour the brine into the jar to cover the cabbage. Insert a small plate or bowl into the jar’s mouth to help keep the cabbage submerged in the brine. Loosely cap the jar. Retain 1 cup of brine to add to the jar during fermentation to keep the cabbage covered with liquid.
4) Place the jar on a plate (in case your fermentation bubbles over) and store out of direct sunlight in your kitchen. Ferment the cabbage for 21 days (or to taste) at room temperature. Check on the cabbage every day or so to make sure it is submerged in brine. Use the retained brine to top off the jar as necessary.
For the Stew
2 pounds bone-in beef short ribs, each rib cut into 3-inch pieces
beef bone(s) [optional]
½ cup hard red wheat berries
2 medium onions, halved and sliced
fermented cabbage, cut into 2-inch pieces
8 ounces tomato sauce
1 tablespoon dried sweet basil
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1) Remove any excess fat from the beef ribs. Place the ribs (and beef bone(s), if using) in a heavy enameled 7-quart pot. Strain the brine from the fermented cabbage into the pot. Rinse and add the ½ cup wheat berries to the pot. (Do not use the spent berries from the fermentation jar; throw these berries out). Bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a gentle simmer and cook for 1 hour. Skim off any impurities.
2) After 1 hour, remove the beef bone(s), if using. Add the sliced onions, fermented cabbage, tomato sauce, dried sweet basil and cayenne pepper. Bring pot back to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for approximately 2 hours until the beef becomes tender.
I imagine that everyone has a food that, upon taking in its smell or the first bite, magically transports one back to childhood. So it is for me with this dish. When I smell it cooking, it is like when the food critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s Ratatouille first samples Remy’s version of the film’s titular dish. I am back at my grandmother’s table, surrounded with family, sharing a special meal that, yes, takes weeks to make, but tastes so delicious and comforting. Its rarity made it all the more special. How can I let such a glorious food fade away with time and the passing of a generation of Armenian grandmothers? I cannot, so I happily share this family recipe.