Of Cabbages and Kings
As the walrus famously said to the carpenter, the time has come to talk of many things. Unlike the walrus I won't dwell on shoes, ships and sealing wax. I'll give cabbage pride of place instead. Often much maligned, this most benevolent and sturdy crop bridges the so-called hungry gap – the period in the farming year when winter fodder is almost over, and fresh new produce isn't yet ready for harvesting.
In the hands of a loving cook, cabbage can be a feast for a king, offering a cornucopia of colours, textures, shapes and flavours. It comes in a rich palette ranging from deep emerald greens and royal purples to the palest of creams. The leaves may be deeply blistered like the Savoy, or smoothly etched with crimson like the January King. Shapes range from the splendidly squat Middle Eastern flat cabbage, to the elegant cone-shaped Hispi. Flavours are equally diverse. Chinese cabbage is mild but peppery while the Savoy has a full-on meatiness.
The rule of thumb for cooking cabbage is a short time for crispness and colour, or very slow to bring out sweetness. Anything in-between is likely to result in the rank and sulphurous smell that brings up best-forgotten memories of institutional food.
If you are steaming or boiling cabbage it's a good idea to do so uncovered, otherwise acids in the steam will gather under the lid and drip onto the leaves below, changing the colour to an unappetising khaki. If you are steaming cabbage you will of course need a lid, but it's a good idea to lift it every so often to allow the acid-laden steam to escape.
Moving on from traditional steaming and boiling, if you are an avid reader of food magazines and blogs you may have noticed the current trend for scorching and burning cabbage and other greens. Sounds interesting but if I want my greens browned and crisp round the edges, I take a less aggressive approach and roast them. This really does concentrate the flavours to the point where they become startlingly meaty and sweet.
Kimchi and kraut
Also in today's culinary limelight are fermented greens – sauerkraut and Korean kimchi, for example. I personally find the fermentation process deeply fascinating – miraculous even. So much so that a recent cookery class 'Veggie Special: Fresh Pickles and Ferments' was devoted to it. Co-hosted with Japanese cookery diva Shirley Booth, we successfully made top-notch classic Korean cabbage kimchi, purple cabbage sauerkraut, plus a selection of vibrant vegetable pickles. Not to be confused with chutney and slow-cooked preserves, these pickles were fresh, colourful and crunchy. Most were ready to eat right away, and went down a storm with the participants.
But I digress. For me there is no simpler dish than lightly steamed Hispi cabbage anointed with butter, a few wisps of lemon zest, chopped fresh dill or coriander and freshly ground pepper. It really hits the spot, especially when served with pork.
And finally, my all-time favourite is Mexican Pork and Beans Meal-in-a-Bowl – a great meal-in-a-bowl for a casual weekend lunch, especially at this chilly time of year. Based on the classic Portuguese soup Caldo Verde, I have given it a Mexican twist with avocado, coriander and lime juice. Do give it a try and let me know what you think.
© Christine McFadden, March 2016