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Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 11:09 am

Smothered to succulence

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I’ve cooked thousands of dishes for countless people in my life; some professionally, some as a home cook. Almost all were well received. When catering dinner parties or when my cooking class students sat down to eat, I learned to anticipate a silent moment, a pause when everyone was so enjoying the food that conversation stopped. But I’ve never, ever, made anything that’s engendered such an extraordinary response, such groans of satisfaction, as smothered cabbage.

 Nothing could be more humble, more down-home, than smothered cabbage. It’s a simple concoction of cabbage, bacon and onions that slowly simmers until the vegetables are meltingly tender and the flavors have fused into something greater than their parts.

 My love affair with smothered cabbage began last year with my husband Peter’s and my journey to southwestern Louisiana for Blackpot Festival. For the first time, there was a three-day prior event with classes in Cajun music, dancing, food and culture. Breakfasts and suppers were Cajun, some linked to classes. But the lunches consisted of generic cold-cuts and cheeses for make-your-own-sandwiches. So Peter and I headed to Ruby’s Café in nearby Eunice. Ruby’s is what’s known down South as a “meat and three”: diners choose their main course, and pick two or three items from lists of sides that changes daily and seasonally: black-eyed peas, eggplant dressing, slaw, macaroni salad, collard greens, etc. And smothered cabbage, which I’d previously enjoyed, and was delighted to see on the menu that first day. But the morning Blackpot sessions ran long; it was after 1 p.m. when we got to Ruby’s. Sadly, the cabbage was gone, and it didn’t reappear the next days. I felt vaguely cheated and decided to make my own back in Springfield.

 The weekend after we returned home, I made a big pot of smothered cabbage to take to a harvest celebration/bonfire/cookout at Matt and Debbie Daniels’ Bear Creek Farm. After putting the cabbage on the food table, we set our bag chairs around the fire, and Peter volunteered to go fill plates for us both. Shortly after he left, a stranger came up to me. “Have you had the cabbage?” he asked. “You have to try it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten!” Before I could respond, he’d moved on to tell someone else about it. Minutes later, Peter appeared, chuckling, “It’s crazy back there: people are standing around your cabbage, eating it and moaning like they were making love.”

 Since it was such a hit, the next week I made smothered cabbage for Peter’s band, Touch of Grey. The middle-aged band members practice weekly in an old outbuilding on our farmstead, and I usually make them something to eat during their break. Peter came into the house, again chuckling and shaking his head: “They’re going nuts over the cabbage, making the same noises just like at Daniels’!”

 The technique of smothering isn’t exclusive to the American South, but is more predominant there than in the rest of the U.S. It’s defined as cooking slowly over low heat in a covered pan, using some liquid, but not so much that the ingredients are completely submerged – a.k.a. braising.

 Many think of braising primarily in connection with meats, but it also lends itself wonderfully to vegetables, something that’s often forgotten because of the current popularity of crisp-cooked vegetables – something that’s become so endemic that smothering/braising vegetables until they’re meltingly unctuous almost seems heretical.

 Don’t get me wrong: I love barely-cooked and raw vegetables, especially when they’re in season, fresh from the garden. But that doesn’t preclude my enjoyment of vegetables that have been cooked long and slow, especially in cool months. Many food cultures, especially ones around the Mediterranean such as Italy, Turkey and Morocco, cherish their traditional slow-cooked vegetables. In The Soft Approach: In Praise of Soft-Cooked Vegetables in the October 2011 Saveur Magazine, author Leslie Porcelli explores the reason for the unique flavor and texture of long-cooked vegetables. North Carolina State University food science professor Keith Harris provides the answer: “It’s true that when vegetables, especially cruciferous [cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.] vegetables, are cooked, the damage to the plant’s tissue brings about reactions between compounds that are usually kept separate.” That creates the sulfuric aroma that’s given long-cooked vegetables a bad reputation. But if vegetables continue cooking, “at a certain point the aroma will dissipate, and you’ll end up with the flavor compounds left in the plant, including its [natural] sugars, especially if it’s cooked and served in a way that the sugars aren’t poured out with the cooking water.”

 While Harris provided Porcelli with the scientific basis for the delectability of long-cooked vegetables, renowned LA chef Nancy Silverton provided a cook’s perspective: “You’ve got to really push the envelope, push through the just-cooked stage, and you arrive at that sweet complexity. Italians…know that more mature vegetables have more flavor. True Italians have no tolerance for crunchy vegetables.”

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Smothered cabbage

  • 8-12 oz. smoky, thick-cut bacon, diced
  • 2 lbs. coarsely chopped cabbage
  • 1 c. chopped onion, NOT super-sweet
  • 1 T. cane syrup, molasses, or dark brown sugar
  • 1 c. water
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or more or less to taste
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne, or more or less to taste
  • Salt, if needed

In a large heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid, sauté the bacon over medium-high heat until it just begins to crisp and has rendered some of its fat. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and pour off the fat. Return 1/4 c. of the fat to the pan and reserve any excess for another use.

 Add the onion to the pot, stir to coat with the bacon fat, cover the pot, and let the onion cook for a few minutes, until it has turned translucent but hasn’t browned.

 Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine well. Turn the heat to medium-low, cover the pot, and simmer until the cabbage is completely tender, about an hour. Check the seasoning; depending on the saltiness of your bacon, you may or may not need to add salt. Serves 4-6.

 


 

Vegetables braised in olive oil

  • 1 c. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 T. anchovy paste
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red chili flakes, or more or less to taste, optional
  • 6 sun-dried tomatoes, thinly sliced lengthwise
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 lemon, ends trimmed, thinly sliced crosswise, seeds removed
  • 2 medium or 3 small zucchini, cut diagonally into 1 1/2-inch thick slices
  • 1 T. minced fresh rosemary
  • 1 lb. baby or fingerling potatoes
  • 1 medium head broccoli, cut into florets with some stem attached if possible
  • 1/2 medium head cauliflower, cut into florets with some stem attached if possible
  • 2 T. finely chopped parsley
  • 1 T. fresh marjoram leaves, or substitute additional parsley
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the olive oil, anchovy paste, chili flakes, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, rosemary and lemon slices in a large pot over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, and the garlic and the lemon slices are lightly browned, about 5 minutes.

 Add the zucchini in a single layer and cook, without stirring, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Flip the zucchini, and cook a few minutes more.

 Add the potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower and stir once or twice to coat in oil. Cook, covered, without stirring, until the vegetables begin to brown and soften, about 30 minutes.

Stir vegetables gently, replace the lid, and reduce the heat to medium-low; cook until the vegetables are very soft and tender, about 60 minutes more.

Remove the vegetables from the heat. Stir in half the parsley and marjoram. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with the remaining parsley and marjoram.

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