I’m late to the cabbage party. Until a few years ago, I’d spent my life resolutely hating it. As a child, I vaguely recall my mother preparing the occasional summertime slaw. That the cabbage should be shaved very thin was utterly unknown to the Ozzie and Harriet generation (Julia Child was a few years over the horizon), so it was sort of like chewing on shoe laces bathed in mayonnaise.
On the other hand, I vividly remember a couple of summers my sister and I spent working on a dude ranch in south-central Montana. The cook had a fondness for prepared foods for the staff. Bake or deep fry some shit, and poof Bob’s your uncle. Serious attention, you see, went into meals for paying guests. And his daily drinking time. One of his favorites for us was cabbage rolls: freezer to oven to table with minimal expenditure of effort or thought. God knows what they were stuffed with, but the smell alone was enough to put one off one’s feed. People with genuinely deep cabbage-roll experience speak of the real thing in near whispers. Some tell reverent stories of long-gone Omas who would spend hours cooking fillings that they wrapped in hand-peeled leaves and offered up like presents. Others describe feeling driven to find the perfect vegetarian fillings, often rice-based, saucing the rolls with velvety, coconutty, curries. Those of my memory were more like mystery meat wrapped in wet kleenex. I’d rather starve.
Time passed. We moved on and began cooking for ourselves and our families. My sister, a physician, never understood how I could boycott such a perfect vegetable: rich in antioxidants that protect against the popular cancers, high in essential B vitamins and vitamin K. Intellectually, I knew all that, but still couldn’t get past the dreadful Proustian memories; just mention cabbage, and I’d shiver.
Everything changed when my sister and I were in Santa Barbara visiting her elder son, then a student at UCSB. Wandering along State Street one afternoon, we sat down for lunch at a little sidewalk place that I can picture to this day: hanging fuchsia plants, a heavenly bamboo surround, stone-topped tables. I ordered a chicken wrap sandwich, and must have been so blissed out on the ambient beauty and sultry sea-laden breeze that when glancing over the menu, I had managed to overlook the red cabbage mentioned in the filling. Grilled chicken, scallion shards, avocado slices, fresh cilantro, and yes, paper-thin shreds of red cabbage, all in a cumin-coriander-lime dressing. It was so gorgeous, and smelled so magnificent that I wolfed it down. DIVINE! I was a convert. I’ll be writing it up for you as How I Came to Love Cabbage, Part 1, since chronologically, it came first.
I digress. Cabbage is a perfect vegetable for solitary cooks. A head of it can be divided and taken in many directions, and it keeps almost forever (no one tests the longevity of anything in the refrigerator better than I). The idea for braising it came from a DailyBuzz Food email. I can neither remember nor find the recipe that was the inspirational jumping-off point (it’s an interesting site, but nearly impossible to search for anything, so unfortunately I can’t give you the original link), save for the fact that cabbage was braised, an idea that had never occurred to me. But the idea was interesting, so I started thinking about what sort of flavor profile I wanted to pursue. And ever since my most recent expedition to the back of a pantry cupboard, I’ve tried to keep a running mental list of what I have on hand. Hence, pad thai noodles and coconut milk led me towards an Asian theme.
This makes a lovely summer evening dinner because it requires a skillet for just a short time, then moves to the oven, which retains its heat pretty efficiently; the rice noodles essentially cook in a bowl of hot water, then chill in cold water and within about 30 minutes, the whole thing turns into a salad for a warm summer’s eve. And dinners don’t come with much greater greater economy than this.
Serves 1; do the math as needed for more
1/2 ounce dried shitake mushrooms *
4 ounces boiling water
1/4 head savoy cabbage **
2 ounces sesame oil
1 conventional or 2 small cubes frozen coconut milk (or 2 tablespoons coconut milk)
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
2 ounces sweet rice vinegar ***
2 ounces soy sauce
1 star anise pod ****
1/2 package (about 6 ounces) pad thai sticks, broken in half *****
Boiling water to cover
1 ounce sesame oil
1/4 red or orange bell pepper, sliced and diced
2 or 3 thinly sliced scallions
1 dozen snow pea pods, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon pickled ginger slices (available in the produce section of most grocery stores, also called sushi ginger)
1 teaspoon lemongrass paste
Sriracha or Sambal Olek to taste
2 tablespoons Sesame seeds
Chopped cilantro for garnish ******
1/2 of a lime, charred
* Make dried mushrooms of various varieties a staple of your pantry; they’re very versatile, and lend deeper flavors than fresh in some applications. The same goes for any kind of rice noodle. On a recent pantry-cleaning expedition, I discovered a half-dozen packages of them in states from shiny and unopened to nine tenths gone. You can put almost anything over rice noodles very quickly, and they are gluten-free.
** Savoy cabbage is the round frilly one, as opposed to Napa cabbage, which is the long, fat, frilly one. Savoy strikes a nice balance between the looseness of Napa, which is too tender for braising, and common ordinary cabbage, which is a bit too dense.
*** Also known as “seasoned” rice vinegar
**** Don’t be afraid that your sauce is going to taste of licorice. Star anise is common to slow-cooked Asian dishes; it’s aroma and flavor are much sweeter and earthier than fennel or anise seed, for example.
***** Breaking them in half before adding the boiling water makes them a bit more user-friendly for a salad.
***** Cilantro is a very tender herb, so there is no need to separate the leaves from the stems, as with parsley; rather, chop them all up together. And remember to treat your cilantro like roses.
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the dried shitake mushrooms in a heatproof bowl. Pour the boiling water over them. Cover the bowl with a plate to retain the heat. Let sit for 15 minutes.
- Remove 1/4 of the head of savoy cabbage; try to do so by leaving the rest of the head intact, as it will last longer. The cabbage wedge is going to turn so silken and tender while braising that you don’t even need to remove the core. Film a heavy-bottomed skillet (cast iron is wonderful) with the sesame oil and warm it over medium-high heat. Add the cabbage wedge. Don’t salt, or it will basically poach rather than sear because of the water that will be released. Sear it to a golden brown on both cut sides, about 2 to 3 minutes each. Warning! It is going to spatter like a you-know-what. Resist the urge to cover it with a lid, and drape a kitchen towel over the skillet instead. A lid will simply steam the cabbage without searing it.
- Remove from the heat. Use a spatula to lift the cabbage wedge to a plate or cutting board. If using frozen coconut milk cubes, add them to the skillet and stir around as they melt. Next add the water drained from the mushrooms, hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and star anise. Use a flat-edged spatula to stir the ingredients around, loosening any browned bits from the bottom of the skillet. Return the cabbage to the skillet and set it in the oven. Braise for 15-20 minutes, or until cabbage is gently softened and the flavors gives off a heady fragrance.
- While the cabbage is braising, place the noodles in a large bowl and pour in enough boiling water to cover them. Set a plate on top to retain the heat. Let them sit for 15 minutes. Pour the noodles into a colander to drain. Run cold water over them, tossing them with your hands until they are completely chilled. Once thoroughly chilled and drained, pour them back into the large bowl. Toss them with an ounce or so of sesame oil so they don’t stick together.
- Thinly slice the snow peas and scallions. Dice the bell pepper. Add them to the bowl along with the retained mushrooms. If the mushrooms are large, chop them up a bit on a cutting board. Add the scallions, snow peas, and pickled ginger.
- When the cabbage can be easily pierced with a paring knife, remove the skillet from the oven. Transfer the cabbage to the cutting board and slice it as thin as you can; don’t worry if it isn’t especially so, as it will be a bit slippery. Add it to the bowl of noodles.
- Season the pan sauce to taste right in the skillet with Sriracha or Sambal Olek, and lemongrass paste, and pour the sauce over the cabbage and noodles. The skillet will still be hot, so return it to medium-high heat on the stove and place the lime in it, cut side down. While the lime is charring, toss the salad so that its flavors have a chance to blend. Brown the lime deeply, about 3-4 minutes (its flavor will be much more complex, with a whole new touch of sweetness.
- Dish up as much as you think you can hold and garnish with sesame seeds, cilantro, and wedges of lime. You will likely have enough left over for lunch. Lucky you.