Saturday, September 3, 2011

Kitchen Challenge: Insanely Good Cooked Cabbage

One would assume that by looking at the breadth and longevity of work on this blog that I come from a background of family members who love to cook. One might also assume that I come from a long line of adventurous eaters, always looking to try a new ethnic cuisine and going way off the beaten path in order to track down the little mom and pop eateries that don't just put out a plate of food, but a plate of food with soul. You'd be wrong.

My grandmother came from an era of convenience foods, a time when food companies successfully convinced mothers that they would have more time to spend with their burgeoning families if they used processed products and as a result, be better mothers and wives. Sure, we've all used a can of this or a box of that in a pinch, but this brave new world became so entrenched and so easy that many of the food traditions got lost along the way. And what one generation realized was a culinary shortcut, the next didn't recognize as a shortcut at all. Such is my mother.

Even though I have loved cooking since a very young age, the wool was pulled over my eyes, too. Want to make Green Bean Casserole? Well, clearly you need a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup! To think any other way was simply inconceivable. My gastronomic epiphany came about when food companies were finally required by law to put not only nutritional and portion information on each product, but also list the ingredients in order from most to least. It has always baffled me when food companies try and separate themselves from the competition by announcing new products aimed at lower sugar, salt, or fat. Why not just change their current product line to make them healthier in the first place? But I digress.

My point (and yes, gentle reader, I do have one) is that I missed out on a lot of epicurean experiences because no one around me knew any better. One of those items was cabbage. Sure, we ate coleslaw during the summer and sauerkraut during the new year's festivities, but both were store bought and simply opened, possibly reheated, and plated. It wasn't until I started experiencing other ethnic cuisines during and after college that I realized I simply didn't know much about this cruciferous vegetable.

I had some basic knowledge of how to prepare green cabbage thanks to a Good Eats episode with Alton Brown, but other than that, it remained a mystery to me until one day when I had come over to cook dinner for my grandmother and found a head in her refrigerator after ransacking it for a side course for dinner. I've now made and tweaked this recipe enough times that I finally feel as if I can competently write about it. If all you can think of is the sulphuric scent that hangs in the air when cabbage is long-cooked, you'll be happy to know that this recipe has none of that foul stench.

Creamy Honey Mustard Cooked Cabbage
1 medium head green cabbage
2 medium (or 1 large) yellow or sweet onion
4 cloves garlic
1 box fresh chervil (you could also use tarragon)
Low-salt chicken stock/broth
Dijon mustard
"Lite" coconut milk
Rice wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Coconut milk might seem like a really odd item to add, but my grandmother is lactose intolerant. Substituting the thick, creamy coconut milk replaces the heavy cream I would have used AND has the benefit of lightening up the dish in terms of calories and fat. Use heavy cream if you'd like instead.

First, remove any dry or wilted outer leaves from the cabbage. Using a sharp knife, cut the cabbage into quarters, going through the core (the tough part at the end). Take each quarter and cut the tough core away from the leaves. Once you have cored all four, turn the quarter so that it sits longer from left to right. Using a sharp knife, thinly slice through all the cabbage leaf layers. As you finish each quarter, run the slivers through your fingers and into a waiting bowl. A medium cabbage will yield a LOT of slivers.

In a second bowl, cut off the root and non-root end of the onion and peel off the outer layer. Slice the onion in the middle from cut end to cut end. Lay the cut side down on the cutting board and use the knife to slice half-moons from one end of the onion to the other. Again, fan out the half-moons into a second bowl with your fingers. Repeat this for the rest of the onions.

In one small bowl, mince up four cloves of garlic. In a second small ball, take a small handful of fresh chervil and run the knife through it a couple of time to break it up. There is no need to pick the leaves from the stems as they are tender enough that it doesn't matter if some (or a lot for that matter) end up in the dish. Your initial mise en place is now done.

In a large high-sided saute pan (you could also use a stockpot or Dutch oven, too), add about two tablespoons of canola/grapeseed/vegetable oil and a tablespoon of butter. When the butter has melted and turned a brownish color (buerre noisette, anyone?), add the onions to the pot and stir to coat in the fat. Add a largish pinch of kosher salt and a couple grinds of fresh black pepper and begin to sweat the onions over medium low heat, until they soften up and turn translucent.

Add the garlic and stir until the garlic becomes fragrant, maybe 45 seconds. At this point, add about a cup of the chicken stock to the pan to deglaze it and get up all those wonderfully tasty brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Add in all of the cabbage and a small handful of the freshly chopped chervil. Using two spatulas or a pair of kitchen tongs, begin combining all of the ingredients carefully. Add another hit of salt and freshly cracked pepper, bring to a simmer, cover, and turn down the heat to low on the burner. At this point, it will simply take time to break down the tough cabbage. Probably about forty-five minutes to an hour. Fortunately, the only thing you have to do is every fifteen minutes or so, take off the lid, stir the contents, and return the cover.

When the cabbage is finally tender enough, you can simply re-season with salt and pepper to make sure it tastes good and serve as is, or take it a step further like I did tonight. At this point, I added two heaping spoonfuls of Dijon mustard, two spoonfuls of honey and half a can of coconut milk. I should address the coconut milk first before going any further in the recipe. When you buy coconut milk at the grocery store (and I got mine in the international aisle in Giant Eagle), likely it has sat a while. This is good because if you don't shake it up and carefully open the can, you will see one of two things: rich creamy coconut "cream" or thin, translucent coconut "water." Just like the days before milk homogenization, the contents will separate and the cream will float to the top. Using just the cream, add it to the pan, too. Also add about a tablespoon of rice wine vinegar.

The exact proportions of mustard, honey, and vinegar are a bit up to you. I was trying to go for a sweet and sour mustard taste. If you like it more sweet, use more honey. More tangy? Use more vinegar. You get the point. Stir this mixture into the cabbage and onions, re-season with salt and pepper if needed, and add another handful of chopped chervil. With fresh herbs, you want to cook with them in two stages, half at the beginning and half at the end. Now, with the lid removed, turn up the heat to medium and begin to reduce the sauce until it is a consistency that you like. Tonight, I decided to nestle quickly seared (but not fully cooked) pounded chicken breasts into the mustardy, creamy broth and braise for an additional five minutes while the sauce reduced around it.

When ready to serve, I plated up some of the Romano chive mashed potatoes I had also made to accompany the chicken and cabbage, placed a bed of the cabbage and onions on the plate, adorned it with one of the chicken breasts, and sauced the entire thing with a bit of the honey mustard cream. A gentle sprinkle of chervil over the top gave it some additional flavor and a colorful pop. Here was the finished dish:

Seared Chicken over Honey Mustard Cabbage with Romano Mashed Potatoes

I am usually harder on my own cooking than grandma is, but when she said how good this was, honestly, I had to agree with her. If you have lived with a fear of cooking cabbage or just needed something new to try, I'd suggest you give this recipe a go and discover a tasty treat that isn't particularly hard to make.

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