As any good Windsorite can tell you, the weather in Southwestern Ontario is prone to flights of fancy. It floats to a lovely high of 10C one day and then descends into the gloomy trenches the next, hovering around -20C. And as a good, former Windsorite, I've developed a sizeable amount of patience over the years for fluctuating temperatures and seasonal disappointments. But like perishable food my patience has a best-before date, and as Valentine's Day came to a bitterly cold, windy close, I felt it expire. I want summer dresses and weekends spent at the beach listening to jazz and reading. Heck, I'd settle for a t-shirt and jeans and a walk through Trinity Bellwoods at this point. Are you there, spring? Its me, Sarah.
I like casseroles, soups and stews well enough. Miraculously, I haven't tired of them yet; I still have a full line-up of potential suitors begging for a trial run, including a dish of chic chickpeas cooked in dry white wine and lemon juice, served over mashed potatoes (or, I'm thinking, a creamy bed of polenta and steamed greens.) But yesterday I observed as Laura Calder made eggs en pipérade and readers, I dreamt and drooled over the thought of eggs cooking away in a savory tomato and pepper sauce accompanied by a side of soft baked homefries. But peppers and tomatoes aren't in season yet, so here I wait, awash in carrots, potatoes and onions.
But, as it turns out, there is cabbage. Yes, that homely, round vegetable most ignore or eat sparingly via coleslaw or as a vehicle for ground beef and rice. You might recognize it pickled, eaten atop bratwurst. As alone as I am in this camp -- and trust me when I say that the cabbage lover's world is a very, very lonely one -- I am a harsh defender of its versatility and deliciousness. Now, I don't care for boiled cabbage, and I don't know many who do. Frankly, it's bland and boring and loses all of its lovely texture. Braised or roasted cabbage is an entirely different story and one I like a great deal better than its clean-simmer-serve narrative.
I was surprised to learn that cabbage is actually native to the Mediterranean region. Cato the Elder declared that "It is the cabbage that surpasses all other vegetables." Personally, I like its other names -- sea cabbage and wild cabbage -- much better, and I think if we started calling it Sea Cabbage of Greece it would rise in popularity by at least ten points within the week. In the interest of transparency I sometimes refer to it in my mind as Cah-bahge!!! (three exclamation marks!), a cross between sabotage and kaboom, which makes it sound like a deadly weapon. It gives me heart palpitations and provokes fainting in particularly impressionable foodies, so I'd say my pronounciation is quite fitting. Good cah-bahge may cause fatalities; consume at your own discretion. When I trained for a job at a grocery store many moons ago we were referred to the it as "sexy cabbage" because its corresponding number is 4069, and ever since I've considered it the bad boy of the vegetable world. Don't allow its ubiquity to deceive you.
As far as dangerous situations go, such was the case when I somehow found myself at lunch one Winterlicious day at Pangaea (pan-gee-ahh!!!), one of Toronto's (allegedly) best kept secrets. Frisée and light greens dressed with a mustard vinaigrette, served with half a perfectly crisp roasted pear, a small square of Stilton and candied walnuts. Well-seasoned duck confit, incredibly tender to the tooth, on a small pool of sour cherry jus and served with a side of apple braised cabbage. For dessert, a white teacup of drinking chocolate with homemade vanilla bean marshmallows. "It is what it says it is," said our server. "I know," I answered. "It's what I want." To my mind, it is easy to do fancy dishes; I take issue with the fact that the ingredients often overwhelm each other to such a degree that they are rendered unrecognizable or muddled. A simple hot chocolate is hard to pull off. Because there are so few ingredients it would be impossible to hide an ingredient of inferior quality; any eater with a solid palate will know immediately. Fortunately the hot chocolate was perhaps the best I've had in my life. I'm still thinking about it.
But if pushed, the cabbage took the lunch to new heights. Others pushed theirs off to the side, so I might be (gasp! again!) alone on this, but I adored it. It was buttery in texture and intensely flavourful, and lingered perfectly on my tongue alongside the melting duck meat. I had clearly underestimated its potential. Oh, I remember overhearing discussions over a good ol' fashioned girl's night in Florida about how cabbage cooked in a cast iron pan with bacon can take on almost mystical qualities, but it took really tasting cabbage in her Sunday best to get me up in arms. Err...his Sunday best. Whatever.
I don't often try to replicate restaurant dishes. If I've experienced a memorable meal, I'll return for it. But cabbage is easily made at home, and so I've gone and done it anyway, Sarah-style. It's not fresh peppers and tomatoes, nor is it Pangaea, but perhaps it is close enough. At least until next month when I begin to long for local asparagus and bright-tasting red currants.
Savoy cabbage (see above) is the best varietal for cooking, but this recipe would be equally delicious with white winter cabbage.
Braised Cabbage with Apple and Carrot
Yields 6 - 8 side portions
1/2 - 3/4 of a Savoy cabbage, thinly sliced
1/2 cup pure apple cider, preferably with no sugar added
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 carrots, grated
1 medium sized apple (such as McIntosh), grated
3 tbsp unsalted butterSalt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 400F.
In a large bowl, mix together cabbage, grated carrots and grated apple. Add to a large greased casserole dish (I use one by Anchor). It's okay if it overflows slightly, as the cabbage will cook down.
Heat the butter over medium heat until melted and slightly nutty smelling. Remove from heat and whisk in apple cider and white wine. Season the liquid generously with salt and pepper, and pour over cabbage mixture.
Roast for about forty-five minutes, covered, removing once from the oven to mix. Roast for an additional fifteen minutes uncovered so the edges brown and crisp up.