April 29, 2012

Blog the Fourteenth: On Cabbage Barbary

Red Cabbage, why bother?

Why red cabbage?  It demands explanation, because my people have a cabbage of their own, Savoy, and my mother knows how to make it very delicious.  At the grocery store, Savoy beckons with its glowing visage of chartreuse undulating to creamy white over a voile of curly ripples.  When you get it home and cut it open, a hundred giggles break out from its twin amphitheaters of nooks and crannies.  Vouchsafe it much onion, a little tomato pulp and broth, and this genial cabbage rejoices to return you steamy savory comfort.  (So different, the leathery grey-green cannon-ball sitting beside it in the market, best fit for boiling with corned beef and potatoes one day a year, in honor of a saint.)

So, I think an apology for my willingness to cook red cabbage is called for—an apology not in the colloquial sense of an admission of guilt, but rather in the classical (and paradoxically opposite) sense of self-defense.  To begin, you must grant me that the RED of red cabbage arrests the attention.  That granted, if one takes as one’s major premise, that the universal imperative of Nature is to paint the dinner plate GREEN, WHITE, and RED (and the red cabbage looked great on the plate last week with beef cutlets breaded and fried and broccoli lemony); and, further, cognizant of how difficult a RED for one's plate can be to come by at times in the market, one grants, for the minor premise, that this food is RED as RED can be; how can one not draw the conclusion, It must be cooked?  

Alas, logical necessity is one thing, and practicability another.  No genial cabbage, this.  It is armored against assault by storm, paw, and tooth.  It is contracted as densely as a rock, as if for indefinite siege, and when with a great knife and strain you cut it open, it seems to draw itself in yet tighter against your mortal stroke, its arteries looking readier to pour blood  than surrender. In cooking, it begrudges you its flavor and color, turning grey and bland, to render your victory over it Pyrrhic.  It is stubborn, tight‑fisted, and diffident.  It is northern.  Why bother with it?

I don’t know.  I’ve never been one for hands-on competition—I suck at team sports.  But I decided to wrestle this cabbage, and was pinned many a time by it, before I prevailed.  My initial failures came from turning to my culinary godmother for Italian recipes.  Apparently, the north of Italy is not nordic enough to crack this cabbage.  It kills me to admit it, but I came upon the final solution in a French dish cooked for me by my Francophilic gourmet-friend, the one who likes rare steak.

This apology for my willingness to cook red cabbage forces me to come clean on my relations with the French.  French cuisine is my frenemy.  I love to say I hate it.  The truth, however, is that this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.  When the Florentine Catherine de Medici was married off to Henri II, the retinue she brought with her to the barbaric north included cooks who were to lay the foundations of what became French Haute Cuisine.  These Italian cooks were carried off by their Tuscan princess into the land of the Gauls, a land which, after being conquered by Rome, was overrun by nordic invaders, who then overran northern Italy, hobbling the Roman empire and with it Greco-Roman civilization.  The Italian chefs brought by Catherine with her into latter day Gaul had ingeniously to adapt their recipes to products and customs of a less genial clime, terroir, and culture.

In Italy, this same courtly cuisine mixed in with peasant cooking and this seasoning by the “salt of the earth” produced the food of my people.  The humbling of aristocratic hauteur was all important for producing a cuisine as genial as it is noble, as simple as it is subtle, as companionable as distinguished.   Some French cooking is like this too, and I like it very much.  But much that commands the admiration and purse of connoisseurs, I don’t.  The art of Haute Cuisine can be overweening, overwrought, overdetermined; its refinements more exquisite than delicious; its superciliousness ungracious. 

However, when my francophilic friend braised his red cabbage with a mirepoix of onion, carrot, and celery, suddenly its native flavor jumped out at me.  I saw what to aim for. So I name my Italianization of this French recipe barbary, barbarous being a word Greeks and Italians used to mock the sound foreign tongues had to their greco-roman ears, and barbary coast a name for seaports where natives and native cultures hook up with foreigners and their exotic exports.

Given my published manifesto of chauvinism, how is it I thus risk fornication with a foreign cuisine?  Well, I acknowledge that under the Law of Moses, such mixing with the peoples is wisely forbidden, against the temptation to corruption by their ungodly ways.  However, under the New Testament, the Apostle to the Gentiles grants believers the privilege of marrying unbelievers, so long as the unbelieving spouse allows the believer the practice of their faith.  The Apostle goes so far as to say that the believing spouse can even sanctify the unbelieving spouse through the unity of their married life.  So I figure I’m doing the French a favor by Italianizing their recipe.  In a way, I’m restoring their innocence.

The use of a sauté of onion, carrot, and celery as an aromatic sweetener is common in my people’s cooking, but I would distinguish ours from a French mirepoix.  They typically dice the trio fine all together and cook it until translucent, whereas we slice ours individuallylarge enough to remain discernible to the eye, but fine enough to remain indiscernible to the toothand we sauté them in successive layers:  first the onion, until golden, and then the carrot and celery, until glazed, spicing to perfume as we go. 

A friend has advised me to pick a fight in my blog with someone prominent, to boost traffic.  He warned me to choose a superior, so that I’ll look like David fighting Goliath.   I’m thinking Lidia Bastonovich, maestra of PBS "Lidia's Kitchen," is a good choice on this matter of the aromatic trio.  I like watching Lidia cook, and so does my mother, and we always laugh with delight at the climatic moment when she raises a forkful of her food to her mouth, huffs and puffs three times in quick succession, and then consumes it with smacks of the lips and expletives of pleasure.  I might even have felt obliged to own her as my culinary godmother, if not that that honor must remain with Marcella Hazan—which is all for the best, because it would be unseemly to pick a fight with one’s godmother. 

Marcella refers to the aromatic trio as a soffrito, meaning a sauté, and she rightly emphasizes sauteeing it long enough to caramelize the sugars educed from the onion and carrot.  Lidia, in contrast, calls it a pestata, meaning a trampling or crushing, and she regularly dumps all three into her food processor (sometimes along with other stuff, like garlic or rosemary), and pulses it.  It’s true that she warns you not to pulse too long, but to my mind, that does not dispel an intimation of that overweening Frankish impulse to break down nature’s products into material for art, and then call it by a name that doesn’t even disclose what it was before they pulverized it (what does mirepoix mean, anyway?).  To make matters a little worse, Lidia dumps the mash into the pot and sautés it until it smells good, but not long enough to turn the onion golden, at least on TV.  I’ll grant that the final product looks good on TV, but I have my doubts about how deep the flavor really is.

It is perhaps painful to recall that Lidia’s native Emilia-Romania fell in the 6th century to the Lombards (barbarians named for their lack of barbering), who established an empire over the native Italians in opposition to the ancient Roman empire.  The Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of Sicily became the redoubt of Greco-Roman culture.  North Italy remained Lombard until taken over in the 8th century by the Frankish king Charlemagne, which culturally speaking, is like going from the fire into the frying pan—an improvement of sorts. One would like to believe that the native Italians eventually conquered their conquerors culturally, as the Greeks had the Romans, but when one sees Lidia willing to call meat dishes with apples in them Italian, one can’t help but suspect a lingering P.T.S.D.  No matter how winningly she may smile or smack her lips, she’ll never convince me that those apple-dishes of Alto Adige eaten with beer are Italian. Calling the Germanic Alto Adige Italian is a little like calling Canada American. It’s technically true, but hardly ever what one means by the word.

It really does feel different up north.  My time staying there put some of my culinary convictions to the test.  My commitment to fatty meat, for example, was challenged.  There was an awful lot of it, all the time.  Instead of a salad or cheese after a steak, I was offered slices of the finest prosciutto, and much hay was made one day over specialty German sausages that looked to me just like hotdogs.  There were few vegetables proffered, and much of the pasta had meat in it or in its sauce.  Butter abounded, but bread didn’t, and what there was, was airy.  There was fancy stuff like truffles shaved on your pasta, but the strongest impression left with me was the exorbitant price.  The risotto was great.  The people I was staying with were both warm and beautiful, but not many others were, so it makes sense to me that fashion and urbanity thrive up there to fill in the breach.  On the whole, much seemed artful and mercantilized.  There’s no denying the chic of it, but chic is candy for the eye, not food for the soul.  The soul-food is down south.

Here’s how we sauté the aromatic trio down our way.  Peeling and halving a very large onion, I put the flat side down on the board, halve the half horizontally, and then slice it thinly.  Since red cabbage needs all the help it can get, I pour out a pool of extra virgin olive oil into the pot, add the onion, sprinkle it with salt, cover the pot, and turn up the heat to medium.  I listen for the pot to start sizzling, then use my spatula to break apart the onion clusters and mix all with the oil; then I cover it again, to wilt the onions. This “pre-sweating” speeds things along (remember this good technique for any sautéing of vegetables).  When the onions are limp, pale, and wet,  I uncover the pot and add a little thinly sliced garlic.  Now I want the steam to dissipate and frying to take over so that sweetening can commence.

All this time, I have been thinly slicing carrot and celery in equal parts, and both together equal in quantity to the onion.  I keep a close watch on the onion and garlic, and when they go from being pale to golden yellow, and from herbaceous to sweet smelling, at the very first glimpse of any of gilding, I add in the carrot and celery with sprinkles of salt, and mix all together well.  I’ll sometimes cover the pot again for a minute or two to speed things along, but it’s not necessary.  What is necessary is that you wait for the carrot to glaze golden, which won’t happen before steam dissipates and frying resumes. 

This sweetening of the aromatics is all important.  I hesitate to use the gourmet term “caramelization” because it suggests browning, which is not what you want.  The sautéing must be at a lively sizzle, but a gentle one; you must not rush it, and you must lower the heat if it sounds too urgent, lest you end up with raw vegetable browned on the outside merely.  The sweetening takes from 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the kind and condition of your onion.  Done right, the sautéd trio will make the whole house smell delicious, even from the street, so that before you even get started on the real cooking, people smell something delicious is in the works.

In the case of cabbage barbary, I season the sautéing trio with generous grindings of black pepper, a few grindings of nutmeg, and pinches of dried thyme, all of which spices should instantly perfume the rising steam.  I might throw in some bay leaves.  I also sometimes throw in a handful of raisins, usually golden or currants, which plump up prettily during the sautéing of the aromatics.  All these additions evoke Arabia for me.  The Arabs sent many wonderful flavoring and perfuming ingredients from Spain and North Africa to Sicily, and from there they traveled up the peninsula and over the mountains into Europe.  They brought sugar to Sicily, and from it was born confectionary.  The sweet and sour recipes of Sicily and Naples testify to Arabic influence, and I associate raisins in food with this influence as well.  I have a great recipe for red peppers from Sicily that sautés it with raisins and almonds, and my Neapolitan homey from Bensonhurst has a great recipe for escarole head stuffed, tied, and braised.  With the use of such Saracen wares, my cabbage barbary becomes even more barbary than at its French port of departure.

In advance of starting the sauté, I halve the cabbage vertically, core it, and slice it horizontally into inch strips.  I put it to soak for a bit in cold water, and when it looks plump and refreshed, I scoop it into a colander and let it drip until I’m ready for it.  When my aromatic trio has glazed golden, I add in the cabbage with showers of salt and cover the pot to wilt it.  Once it’s wilted, I uncover the pot and turn up the heat high to reduce the soupy juice to a saucier one, turning the cabbage over now and again, until it takes on the oil-glaze of the trio.   

At this point, I add about a cup of red wine and a teaspoon or two of dark balsamic vinegar.  The wine is going to keep the cabbage red, and the vinegar adds an under-layer of dark tartness to offset the sweets.  I wait for the wine to heat to simmering before turning the cabbage over in it.  I want to cook off most of the wine at high heat, getting the juice to reduce from soupy to more saucy again, before I add a cup or two of chicken broth.  Then I reduce the heat and put the lid on ajar, to finish cooking the cabbage at a happy simmer. 

I don’t want the cabbage mushy.  By the end, I want it thoroughly tender, but retaining some of its native firmness.  Likewise, I don’t want it soupy.  By the end, I want a saturated juice.  All should be moist and glisten bright and purple.  The dish needs to be concentrated enough and salted enough to become flavorful, but remain light and lively to eye and tongue.  It takes a little experience to figure out how high to keep the heat to achieve this consistency without overcooking the cabbage.

I find that, unlike braised Savoy, this cabbage barbary doesn’t improve when saved, so it is best used within a week. I’ll sometimes use a last leftover portion of it to make a risotto, which my gentile friends and I think is subtly delicious, but which left my parents unimpressed:  “We like the one with porcini better.”  Of course, I’m the one who imported risotto into the family from up north, so what do they know, Right?


Red Cabbage Barbary 

* Halve your Red Cabbage, cut out the core, slice it into inch strips, and put them to soak. * Sauté lots of finely sliced onion in extra virgin olive oil until golden; mix in finely sliced carrot and celery and a bit of very finely sliced garlic, with showers of salt, great grindings of black pepper, a discrete grinding of nutmeg, and a handful of raisins too, if you like, and sauté until glistening and aromatic.
* Drain your red cabbage strips, mix them in, and sauté them until they too glisten.  Add some teaspoons of balsamic vinegar and mix to coat.  Then add a cup of red wine, turn up the heat, and boil it away quickly, turning everthing over in the wine now and again.
* When the wine has reduced to a viscous broth, add chicken broth to come half way up the cabbage, and finish cooking the cabbage on moderately lively heat with the lid ajar.  Cook until fork-tender, bright purple, and glistening with oil, in a pool of viscously vinous cabbage broth.