I've always found it strange that the French involve cabbage in their most common term of endearment, "mon petit chou" (as I learned in my 6th grade French class many years ago). I can't think of a less appealing vegetable visually, to say nothing of the way it smells. I don't know many people that routinely profess their love for it either, so why the famous expression? A little research told me that some people believe it refers to the French word for cream puff, which evidently has some common etymology or reference to cabbage. It certainly is a more romantic reference, but it just so happens that I actually bought a "petit chou" the other day at the farmers market, which got this whole language ball rolling. While it was cuter than your average cabbage and only about the size of my fist, I must say that it presented the same problems as a regular old cabbage the size of my head. What the heck do I do with it, and will I want to eat the results when I'm finished?
But since I'm scraping the bottom of the seasonal food barrel, I felt like I had no choice but to buy the little bugger. I haven't made any cabbage this winter and it's in season, so I figured I'd at least give it a shot. I'm generally not a fan of masking natural flavor and texture, instead choosing to work with whatever the natural characteristics of an ingredient are and enhancing them whenever possible. But I knew this particular ingredient would prove difficult to tame and enhance in any positive way, so I made sure to take my time coming up with a recipe. As a lover of all things tart and sour, I tend to like my cabbage with plenty of pucker, which also happens to be a great remedy for the smelly and generally unpleasant taste and smell of boiled or overcooked cabbage. So after delving into the recipe archives, (the recent Ruth Reichl lecture in the back of my mind) I found a solution in the most recent December issue of Gourmet. A lovely looking recipe for balsamic-braised red cabbage was paired with sweet pan-seared scallops. I'd have to settle for just the cabbage, but it looked like the right idea.
The dish was easy and the final product was tasty, although I had to make major adjustments to the recipe. It was definitely short on liquids, and if you followed the recipe to the letter, the result (at least on my stove, with my pans) would have been a burnt, gloppy reduction and undercooked cabbage. But with some extra water and a few extra tablespoons of vinegar, it actually came out beautifully, not to mention better than I expected. The cabbage still had some bite and wasn't too mushy or limp, and the flavor was great. Slightly acidic, but also a bit sweet, the balsamic vinegar was a perfect foil, and the butter made it silky and luscious (two words I have yet to hear alongside "cabbage"). It'd be a great side dish to pair with roast chicken or pork chops, or even with spiced scallops like the recipe originally says. Here's my version:
Balsamic-Braised Red Cabbage
adapted from Gourmet, December 2008
1 small head red cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
3 Tbsp butter
2 bay leaves
2 cups water
5 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
ground black pepper
Melt butter in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add cabbage, bay leaves, 1 tsp salt, and cracked black pepper, tossing to coat. Stir in 1 cup water and 4 tablespoons of vinegar, tossing to coat. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is cooked through. If the cabbage starts to get dry, and more water 1/4 cup at a time until cabbage is tender. Enjoy!