Cabbage is a modest vegetable with a long history of keeping people fed. China, India and Russia are its top producers, though Russians are off the charts in their 44-pound per-person consumption of this vegetable. (Americans consume only about 8-1/2 pounds per person.) In the U.S. men apparently eat 25% more cabbage than women do, and people under 20 eat almost no cabbage at all.
But enough statistics. Let’s get to the cooking.
A client of mine often requests cabbage rolls, filled however I see fit and served with mashed potatoes. This is not how I would necessarily eat a cabbage roll, but to be entirely truthful, I am not sure that I have eaten a cabbage roll since I was a child. I don’t recall liking them much, and I am still not sure they would be at the top of my list. My friend Diane can always be counted on to bring a large bowl of garlicky coleslaw to parties, and my friend Anne often makes cabbage salads full of feta. A coleslaw with blue cheese dressing is one of the more excellent accompaniments to a grilled burger. Many a social gathering would be incomplete without such dishes, and I will always happily eat these salads.
Cooked cabbage is another story, among my lesser favorites; and fermented cabbage (kimchee) is beyond the pale. Though my ancestors hail almost exclusively from the U.K., I am not a particular fan of corned beef and cabbage. And sauerkraut—though my Mom makes an excellent version—is something I don’t typically eat.
Thus, I was surprised to realize that I was craving braised cabbage on a recent stormy afternoon. This may be because there’s been a lot of talk, since Marcella Hazan passed away recently, about her Smothered Cabbage, a recipe I’ve never made.
I invited fellow cabbage lover Diane over for dinner and gave it a go: plenty of onions, a bit of bacon, and green cabbage, braised until soft in chicken stock, finished with a dollop of mustard and served over mashed potatoes. Big bowls of this were pretty tasty, but there was too much mustard, the bacon had all but vanished, and I’d overcooked the cabbage (I like it a little toothsome).
Round 2, several weeks later, varied a bit: plenty of onions again, but red cabbage (cooked just until it went limp, so it still had a little crunch, but had lost its sulfurous undertones), with garlic, thyme and just a smidge of mustard. Eaten over skin-on Yukon Gold potatoes, smashed with bacon and sour cream, I was surprised at how quickly this disappeared: the ultimate comfort food, satisfying in a fundamental way because of its humble origins. This will be going into regular rotation.
Braised Cabbage with Smashed Potatoes
1 large onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
a generous sprig or two of fresh thyme
a head of red or green cabbage, thinly sliced or shredded
a little chicken stock, veggie stock, or water
2 tsp. of your favorite dijon mustard (or to taste)
2 1/2 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1-1/4″ chunks (skin left on)
some chopped cooked bacon, sausage, or ham (optional)
a few generous spoonfuls of sour cream
Put the potatoes into a big pot of cold water, heavily salted (“like the sea” is a good baseline). Bring to a boil and cook until tender. In the meantime, saute the onion in a little butter or olive oil until limp, then add the garlic and thyme. Cook about 30 seconds, then add the cabbage. Stir well to get the cooking started and then add a little stock/water. Bring to a simmer and allow to cook, with a lid slightly ajar, just until it’s gone limp. Taste it at this point to see if the sulfurous tang is still present; if it is, cook a little longer, covered, adding a little more stock/water if it is too dry.
The potatoes should just be finishing around this point. Strain the cooking water off and return the pot to the burner, now on low heat, stirring a bit to cook off any residual liquid. Smash the potatoes coarsely with the sour cream, adding the bacon at the same time.
Taste for seasoning. Serve the cabbage with some of the braising liquid over the potatoes, with generous amounts of freshly ground black pepper.