Paying cabbage its due

On the list (which is long) of vegetables that are underrated, we come to one with whom I’ve had a long relationship. The lowly cabbage, the stuff of children’s stories and children’s toys, the butt of many a “bubble-and-squeak” joke, the bad guy (growing up) for many years merely boiled to bulk up a dinner plate.

“Tending” the cabbage was one of the many charmed duties I was assigned as a child, on the receiving end of a prank by my mother, who had me, a small, live “scarecrow” shooing and swatting with a wire-handled flyswatter the cream-colored moths that flitted erratically amid our rows of cabbages. I was nothing if not dedicated, keeping a flapping vigil for hours over the pale-green leafy moons as they grew rounder in the garden. The hours were many, then, to while away.

I grew up in the generation of boiled vegetables. The cabbages we grew were often victims of such a steamy end, leeching out all the green, most of the texture and much of the flavor, drizzled with apple cider vinegar from a glass carafe. Cabbage in this way was of the requisite bland that also came from a similar cooking method given to green beans, broccoli and spinach and only made infrequent trips in small doses to my plate (as required). Despite this overriding boredom with boiled veggies, the cabbage’s merits were inadvertently revealed to me through the flavor boost lacy strips of cabbage gave beef or hamburger stew or in the crunchy fringe of homemade slaw. I, in fact, was often given part of the cabbage core to crunch on, sharing it with my mother. We sprinkled the raw cabbage with salt and enjoyed its sweet spiciness, and there was no denying, then, how good it could be.

I‘’ve grown fonder of cabbage over the years, particularly “red” cabbage, its intense purple drawing me to it at the farmers’ market and luring me to include its crunchy, colorful sweetness in salads and other dishes.

A work colleague recently shared a recipe booklet on Irish pub foods, and a recipe for Red Cabbage with Bacon and Mushrooms looked like a way to bring three favorite flavors together.  I had most all the ingredients on hand except for mushrooms (cremini) and the red cabbage. The recipe called for a half a red cabbage, but I found a small one that would likely yield the seven cups called for.

I first crisped up some soy bacon (don’t scoff…I live with a vegetarian and have found myself favoring this stuff often, particularly for flavoring soups and veggie dishes), then used the same skillet to sauté some red onion. 

To the partially cooked onions, I added the chopped mushrooms and some dried thyme, cooking a little more until the mushrooms began to darken.

Next, I added the beautiful cabbage, with some salt and pepper and allowed it all time to cook down and wilt (as it will). Broth (vegetable or chicken), apple cider vinegar (there’s the stuff for cabbage and many things) and part of the bacon were then stirred in and all was given a longer cooking time.

By happy accident, I forgot to get walnuts, which were to be toasted and chopped and added, along with some chopped fresh parsley, at the finish of the dish. I improvised and used some rich pecans…I thought their sweetness and texture would work nicely with the other ingredients.

A bit of the crumbled soy bacon on top and the cabbage was mounded in the serving bowl and soon depleted. Tender yet still crunchy sweetness of spicy spring cabbage, a tanginess from the vinegar, the meaty mushrooms and buttery pecans. I’ve since prepared it a few times. Another fine way to remember an old, and often unsung, friend.

Red Cabbage with Bacon and Mushrooms

From “The Irish Pub Cookbook,” (www.pilcookbooks.com)

Makes 4 to 6 servings

  • 3 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped (about 8 ounces)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 package (8 ounces) cremini mushrooms, chopped (1/2-inch pieces)
  • 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 medium red cabbage, cut into wedges, cored, then cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices (about 7 cups)
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2/3 cup chicken broth
  • 3 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Cook bacon in large saucepan or skillet over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove to paper towel-lined plate.

Add onion to saucepan, cook and stir 5 minutes or until softened. Add mushrooms and thyme, cook about 6 minutes or until mushrooms begin to brown, stirring occasionally. Add cabbage, 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, cook about 7 minutes or until cabbage is wilted.

Stir in broth, vinegar and half of bacon; bring to boil. Reduce to low; cook, uncovered, 15 to 20 minutes or until cabbage is tender.

Stir in walnuts and parsley, season with additional salt and pepper if necessary. Sprinkle with remaining bacon.

Blogger’s Note: I used soy bacon for this recipe, cooking it in a few tablespoons olive oil and using that same cooking oil to sauté the onions. I substituted veggie broth for the chicken broth and pecans for the walnuts.You can toast nuts in a small skillet over medium-low heat for a few minutes, stirring frequently, so they do not burn.

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