Cabbage without the corned beef

By Gretchen Giles

A stupid and lazy camper often gets her comeuppance in the form of a bear, and this stupid and lazy camper huddled in her tent at 3am last summer as an adolescent male bear tore apart a zippered canvas cooler containing a week’s worth of fruit and veggies that certain stupid and lazy people had left out in the open air. When a weary dawn finally broke, apricot pits gooed over with the rich thickness of bear spit lay everywhere, the grapes had been trod and actually shat upon, the carrots had vanished, the lettuce was trompled, the apples were eaten and the melon had been broken and brutally slurped.

All that remained–untouched, inviolate and wholly intact–was one perfect green globe of damned cabbage.

When even a rampaging bear won’t eat that which seems destined to find its highest expression in cole slaw–a dish that the children believe is humorous to refer to as “cold slop”–how can we expect others to embrace its cruciferous goodness?

I admit that I came to this vegetable late in life, having read enough Irish novels describing the sickly smell of the stuff overboiling in water to have snubbed it at the store. But an Irishman who has never written a novel showed me that an epiphany awaited, a culinary aha! moment, naturally enough accompanied by plenty of butter.

Despite its limp, annual surrender when paired with its good buddy the corned beef, cabbage has a standalone gorgeousness when washed, cored, quartered and slow-cooked in generous amounts of butter. Cut the head tenderly, rinse well, shake the water from its leaves and place it in a large heavy pot over low heat. As it warms, use a wooden spoon to gently caress it into the butter until its firm quarters eventually yield to your ministrations. The result is unconscionably sexy, but warming and freshly simple.

I’m not too worried about contracting mad cow disease, but its arrival on these shores certainly highlighted several aspects of the slaughterhouse industry that make me literally gag when I stand in a mass-market supermarket surveying packages of beef. What this means to those closest to me is that we no longer eat beef, save the one $12 splurge on two pounds of the type of ground round coming from a pampered Bolinas animal who, after a lifetime of nibbling fresh greens on the sacred Marin County headlands, simply dies of gratitude before the rancher’s feet. (It tasted, one cannot help but note, no different than that which comes from an animal who had spent a cramped nightmarish existence jammed into a yard with thousands of other unfortunates.)

Which means that in one sad Sebastopol household, the cabbage will be served this year without the corned beef.

But slice up four lovely, crisp cooking apples to sauté in butter (a theme is emerging), and make a gorgeous mash of creamy Yukon Gold potatoes, perhaps dotted with crème frâiche and extra helpings of our friend butter, and the meat seems suddenly de trop.

The beautiful Nigella Lawson, the English Aphrodite of the cooking world, recommends uncooked cabbage for those nights when friends–yes, women–come over to talk about absolutely nothing for long, airy hours around the kitchen table. Adapting her recipe from the eponymous cookbook Best of Nicole Routhier, Lawson suggests that this is an Asian-style slaw, but not really. It’s best, she says on the U.K. portal, served on a large flat platter, “ideal for picking at with an outstretched fork over a drawn-out evening.”

Vegetarian goddess and veggie-painter Mollie Katzen recommends cabbage that’s been magically altered, specifically sauerkraut, as the “mystery” ingredient in her Savory Apple Casserole. Writing in her Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook, she notes that guests may wonder what’s in this dish, but that a secretive smile is the best response.

What’s most marvelous about these recipes is that any stupid and lazy sometimes camper with opposable thumbs who’s mastered knives and fire can make them. Take that, you bear!

Nigella Lawson’s Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad

We adapt from Routhier and Lawson, replacing metric with measurements Americans can understand. Mostly.

1 hot chile, preferably a Thai variety
1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 tbsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. rice vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tbsp. Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce (nuoc nam or nam pla)
1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil
1 bunch of green onions, cleaned and finely chopped
1 small cabbage, shredded
1 medium carrot, shredded, julienned or grated
1 full chicken breast (two halves), cooked and cut into fine strips
1 large bunch of fresh mint, cleaned and chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. In a bowl, combine the chile, garlic, sugar, vinegar, lime juice, fish sauce, oil and onion. Salt and pepper to taste. Put to one side for half an hour.
2. On a big plate or in a bowl, mix the cabbage, carrot, chicken and mint. After the dressing has had a chance to marry, pour it gently over the chopped ingredients. Mix slowly and with patience (yes, Nigella demands patience!), until all is thinly and evenly coated. Taste for salt and pepper balance.
3. Serve on a flat plate with more mint chopped on top.

Savory Apple Casserole by way of Mollie Katzen

Katzen suggests using a 2-quart casserole dish, but we think that a 9 X 13-inch buttered baking pan makes serving this much easier. We also think that browning several fatty yummy sausages and sneaking them into the mix would be wonderful, but then again, we’re only fiscal vegetarians and emphatically not by choice.

1 tbsp. butter
1 c. minced yellow onion
2 tsps. dry mustard
1 32-ounce jar sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
6 medium-sized tart apples, unpeeled and thinly sliced
2 tbsps. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
Dash of salt
Pinch of cloves
Dash of nutmeg
2 tbsps. brown sugar
1/3 lb. grated sharp cheddar
1/2 c. good bread crumbs
3/4 c. minced walnuts

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter the pan and set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a medium-sized skillet. Add the onion and mustard, and sauté over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until the onion softens. Add the sauerkraut and cook for about 5 more minutes. Set aside.
3. Toss together the apple slices, flour, salt and spices in a large bowl. Add the sugar and mix well.
4. Layer the ingredients, beginning with the apple mixture, then the onion-sauerkraut mixture and half the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used.
5. Sprinkle the top with bread crumbs and walnuts. Cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes, then uncover and bake another 15 minutes, to let the top brown. Serve hot.

From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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