So what I want to know is, in terms of food writing at large, what’s this burning obsession with restaurants? I mean, obviously we all like food — have you been to Florida? Those people are huge! My problem with most food writing I’m finding online is it seems so heavily weighted on the side of other people cooking for you. What they’re cooking. How much it is. How the waiter offended you. The lipstick print on the “clean’” glass. Etc. etc. Whiny effete babies! No, not really, but actually, really. Not interesting.
What I find more constructive is actual discussion about cooking itself. That’s my plan, to talk about that from the POV of a semi-experienced but decidedly unprofessional home cook. I live in Brooklyn now, but I was raised in the Arcata Bottoms by a gardening mother and culinary cognoscenti of a father, and cooking and ingredients were constant conversational topics around the home. (Still are, on my visits home.) So, that’s what I intend to focus on: things I like to cook, techniques for cooking them, food experiences I feel are noteworthy for one reason or another and general musings about the qualities of individual ingredients. For example, cabbage. Cabbage? Really? Yes, cabbage.
Earlier this year my saint of a mother took me to Eastern Europe and Slovenia, where I wrote the following, which should provide an introduction to my thoughts on cabbage, and it may explain why the hell I am even thinking about cabbage. Also, I have been very excited about a new cabbage discovery I made recently, which I’ll get around to further on.
May 13, 2008 - Slovenia is interesting.
We had dinner tonight at what is referred to as a “family farm,” and brother, if you’re thinking this is reminiscent of some sort of Steinbeckian/Commie group of austere buildings by a highway with dour-faced women in aprons furiously baking bread, you’re exactly right. The surroundings, however, are lovely, full of nature and nature’s things: streams, pine trees, pudding-faced children.
So we were served a “family-style” dinner — what does this mean, exactly? Is this or is this not a euphemism for crap? Well, it was fine. Over-cooked but flavorful slices off a pork loin, mashed potatoes and ... really good cabbage, cooked down for what must have been 45 minutes or so with water, lard, poppy seeds, salt galore, pepper and I don’t know what else. What spices do Eastern European countries use? There wasn’t paprika. Hmm. Who knows? Anyways, it was cooked down to this unctuous savory mess that was still toothsome. It went so well with pork. It got me thinking about cabbage, which I feel deserves a defense.
I feel quite protective about cabbage. It gets a bad rap in American cooking. Well, fuck off and go bully something deserving, like okra. Cabbage is versatile, nutritious, cheap and super-yum. I realize people’s immediate association is that of a tenement in lower Boston, replete with wet diapers in a tin washtub, screaming red-faced babies and women with work-roughened hands named Mary, but seriously, cabbage is very good.
Here are my relatively inexperienced favorite ways of making it:
Cabbage via Casey’s Mom '&agrav la Edinburgh'
Take a cabbage.
Cut it up into bite-size pieces.
Put in pan.
Cover halfway with water.
Salt, a teaspoon-ish.
Boil 30 min.
Return to pan.
Add hella butter, as much as your conscience will permit, and pepper.
Taste and add more salt.
Dude. I know this sounds way shanty, but listen, it’s very tasty. Cabbage, once you get over the sulfurous cooking smell, has an ephemerally sweet and vegetabley earthy taste that is reminiscent of other cruciferous plants, but is wholly its own. And I know butter is sort of a cheat, but really, if ever an elemental earthy flavor deserved that particular proverbial silk lining, it’s cabbage. It just makes the dish — if such a basic idea deserves that moniker — shine. It’s really good. When Casey’s Scottish maw served it on a wintry eve, I was all set to snigger in disdain, but ended up asking for seconds.
Cabbage à la Sara Reeske.
My friend Sara doesn’t necessarily make her cabbage this way, but I draw inspiration from her fresh salads that go so far beyond what I thought of as “salad greens.”
1 half green cabbage, finely chopped
Handful chopped parsley
2 fistfuls baby spinach
One bunch kale, chopped into thin strips and let rest in juice of one lemon for an hour - this makes it far more tender, especially if you massage it a bit to break up the fibers.
1 clove garlic, mashed or put through press
Juice from a half lemon
Quite a lot of pumpkin seed oil or olive oil. Not too much — maybe 2 tablespoons or so
Salt to taste. At least a teaspoon
A big pinch sugar
One tablespoon white wine vinegar or apple vinegar. More to taste.
Whatever seeds you have around — pumpkin, poppy, or sesame — toast any or all in a dry cast iron pan for a minute before adding, just until fragrant.
(If you want to get real West Coast on this, add some Braggs or soy sauce. You don’t? Okay, that’s cool, whatevs.)
Combine all dressing ingredients, whisk with a fork, pour over greenery, toss. That’s it. You’re done.
Raw cabbage has a lovely nutty flavor and a pleasant resilient texture, but you need to slice it FINELY. Like coleslaw fine. Otherwise it’s really too daunting, jaw-wise. Use a mandolin if you have such a thing. And I can’t emphasize enough how much improved kale is by a gentle three-minute massage.
Try the salad, it’s very good. You feel sated after eating too and it’s very very healthy. Not in a hippie Co-op way, but really. (No offense to the Co-op.)
One of the dishes I most enjoyed while in Romania was called sarmale, which basically means stuffed cabbage, although it bore only a rudimentary similarity to the hearty Jewish dish my mother made occasionally when my father’s elaborate creations got wearying. For one thing, the meat filling of sarmale has a sweet-sour flavor that I couldn’t initially figure out. For another, the cabbage itself is meltingly tender, like, beyond the tenderness boiling gives, almost silkiness. Anyway, the little sausage-like cabbage rolls were addictively delicious.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been researching and experimenting, trying to reproduce them and discovered that the reason for both the sweet-sour character of the meat filling and the tender cabbage leaves is pickling. You use sauerkraut juice in the filling, and the cabbage leaves are pickled! I would have thought that would make a bizarrely tart dish, but it doesn’t. Just makes the best goshdarned stuffed cabbage ever. Sorry, Ma.
This recipe is modified from one out of Taste of Romania by Nicolae Klepper. He pickles whole heads of cabbage in barrels for three weeks, but I couldn’t do that, on so many levels. So, I cut 25 big nice cabbage leaves, made a brine by dissolving a quarter cup salt in a quart of water. I put leaves in a glass bowl, covered them with brine and kept it in a closet for a week. When they were pickled I removed them, rinsed them, and trimmed away the big middle vein that runs up each leaf so as to try to make them as flat and regular as possible.
Sarmale (via Nicolae)
6 T. olive oil
1 chopped onion
2 minced garlic cloves
2 1/2 T. rice
1/4 cup hot water
1 1/2 lbs. ground pork
1 slice white bread, no crust
2 T. fresh dill, chopped
1 t. thyme
2 t. salt
1 t. each black pepper and chili pepper flakes, crushed, (or 1 t. paprika if you don’t like it spicy)
3 cups water mixed with 1 cup sauerkraut juice, 1 t. pepper, and 4 bay leaves
3 cups sauerkraut
6 strips smoky bacon
6 fresh dill sprigs
Put 1 T oil in skillet over medium high heat. Sauté onion, garlic and raw rice for a few minutes, until golden. Add hot water, lower heat to medium low, and simmer for 10 minutes. Cover for 5 minutes or until rice has absorbed all liquid. Uncover to cool.
Dip bread into water, and squeeze out excess liquid. Add bread and cooked rice mixture to pork. Pass through a ricer or meat grinder so it’s fairly smooth and incorporated. Add dill, thyme, salt, peppers and a spoonful of so of water. Mix well.
Take a pickled cabbage leaf in the palm of your hand. With your other hand, center a small amount of meat mixture, like the size of a walnut, and shape it into the form of a little sausage near the base of the leaf, cover with one side of the leaf, roll leaf around meat and end by tucking in the ends of the cabbage like a little present so it seals in the little sausage. Make the rest of ‘em.
When that’s done, put 2 T of oil in a big heavy casserole dish with a lid. Put sauerkraut in a colander, rinse it well and squeeze out water. Cover base of oiled casserole with thin layer of kraut. Place 3 pieces of bacon on kraut. Now cover with a layer of stuffed cabbage rolls. Repeat layers, as in kraut, bacon, rolls. Add a final layer of kraut on top and spread the dill sprigs over that. Sprinkle with the rest of the oil, and pour the water/kraut juice mixture over all.
Cover pot and bring to simmer over med. low heat on stovetop. Cook for around 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375. Bake in oven, covered, for at least 2 hours.
Traditionally served with polenta FYI.
Even better reheated the next day.