After a recent pond hockey game a friend's farm was finished, we gathered in the farmhouse and talk turned to cabbage. Demand was increasing as winter progressed, said Steve, who had never grown so much cabbage. "Before Christmas we were selling 10 cases a week. Since the holidays we are up to 16."
With beverages in hand, some warm and some cold, the hockey players loudly contemplated this spike in cabbage demand, and pondered the consumption of all of that cabbage. What are they, making crocks of sauerkraut? Fish tacos? Stocking up for St. Paddy's Day?
Steve, who has the look of a scholarly cherub, had his own opinion: “I think it’s spring fever,” he said. “As winter gets old, people want green leaves.”
Unlike potatoes, squash, beets, onion and other winter foods, cabbage is a rare green leafy vegetable in the root cellar. Served cooked, raw, fermented or slawed, cabbage is versatile, delicious, crunchy and cheap, and has every right to be popular, especially in winter, when fresh local chlorophyll is in short supply.
In fact, the only other topic as hot as cabbage that afternoon was also greenish: the stash of dried mint. Ever since Steve shared his grapefruit martini recipe, folks on the farm had been fighting over that stash like a loose puck. I’ll give you that recipe in a subsequent column, I promise. I’m still testing it. Extensively.
At the farmhouse, there is always a bowl of coleslaw in the fridge. That day, the slaw du jour was honey mustard. "Not my finest work," admitted Luci, a blunt and wiry sprig of perpetual motion.
“We eat a lot more cooked cabbage than raw,” Steve reflected. Most often in form of the ingloriously named “cabbage glop,” Luci says. At the mention of that ingloriously named dish, Steve purred as if he just remembered having a credit at the brewery.
"It's a one-pot meal on the stovetop," said Luci. She proceeded to recite the recipe, which called for the use of stale (or toasted) bread, which made Steve swoon all over again. "Oh, that stale bread thing. She is a master with stale bread."
No disrespect to the cabbage glop, but I think this dish deserves a name that celebrates its strengths. The combination of crusty bread, melted cheese and tomato sauce is a force to be reckoned with, and when you add cabbage to this mix, the dish that results has every right to be called cabbage Parmesan.
As with other Parmesan-esque dishes, this one is even better the next day. "I like to double down on that bread and put the leftovers on toast," Steve advises.
Like eggplant or chicken parmesan, or pizza, for that matter, the core of this dish is the interaction between tomato, bread and cheese. One could say the cabbage happens to be in the right place at the right time, but it adds body and sweetness while melting right in, and quietly carries the dish. Meat lovers can add ground or chunks. Umami-starved vegetarians can add sliced mushrooms.
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups chopped onion
(Optional: 1 pound ground beef or other meat and/or handful of mushrooms)
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes or other tomato product (I use my frozen sauce)
2 pounds cabbage (if you don't have a scale, make note of the weight at the store and make a plan to cut off the right amount)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme (half that amount if dried)
1 tablespoon oregano (ditto)
3 cloves of garlic, cut crudely
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon ground pepper
8-inch section of baguette, preferably sourdough, or that amount of another white bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1½ cup Parmesan, grated
Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed or deep skillet with a tight-fitting lid, and saute the onions, along with any meat and/or mushrooms you may wish to add, on medium heat. While that's happening, toast the bread chunks under the broiler on a cookie sheet. Watch them carefully and don’t let them burn!
Once the onions weep and cook down (about 10 minutes), add the tomatoes, oregano, thyme, garlic, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Fill the tomato can with a cup of water, swirl it around to catch the remains, and add the tomato water to the pot.
While the onions, spices and tomato simmers, cut the cabbage into what Steve refers to as "egg noodles." Slice off the amount of cabbage you need, and lay it face down on the cutting board. Cut it into pie-like wedges, slicing toward the center from various angles on the outside of the hemisphere. The cuts should be about a ½ inch apart.
Add these “cabbage noodles” to the pot and cook on medium for about 30 minutes with the lid on, until the cabbage is tender. Add the bread cubes and cheese, and stir it together as gently and briefly as possible. Toss a final sprinkle of cheese on top, cook another 5 minutes and turn off the heat. Let sit, covered, for about 10 minutes, and serve.