Food: Cabbage underappreciated in America, but that could change

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 17, 2014 

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Yet again, World Cabbage Day - Feb. 17 - has come and gone without fanfare.

Who cares? The average American doesn't. In our country, cabbage is typically a side dish, most often the unglamorous slaw.

Unlike summer berries with their juicy and shiny allure, or autumn mushrooms foraged under cedar trees, cabbage doesn't beckon seductively, nor does it entice anyone to gush.

Even so, many people everywhere hold the lowly cabbage close to their hearts.

The French endearingly call their children "My little cabbage." Russians are fond of saying "Shchi da kasha pisha nasha" - "cabbage and kasha are our fare" - and, in another proverb, declare that although you may get fed up with your father, you never get fed up with cabbage.

Koreans almost cannot live without their kimchi, and the same goes for Germans with their sauerkraut and for Russians with their shchi soup.

EATING ON THE ROAD

My first insight into cabbage's place in world food culture came while backpacking in Europe 46 years ago. In 1968, I was a newly minted college grad eager to travel and to do, see and taste anything and everything new.

The world shuddered and shifted that year. It was the time of the Prague Spring, the Vietnamese Tet Offensive, the Parisian student strikes and worker riots, the violence at the Chicago Democratic National Convention, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. As a fiercely politically minded 22-year-old, I was moved and consumed by it all.

However, once on the road, I left everything behind and became obsessed with eating.

Sitting in a cold and dreary Moscow hotel restaurant, where I frequently dined, it puzzled me why borscht always came tepid. I quickly learned that slipping a few rubles to the waiter made us both happy as the soup now arrived hot; and when hot it was tasty and bone-deep fulfilling.

While shark fin, a favorite food of my childhood, was offered in many restaurants either braised with chicken and wild mushroom broth or in soup, after enjoying it once I was always drawn back to borscht or shchi.

TEMPTING OFFER

A good friend, Pat Doering and her family faithfully dined at the Pacific Café for more than 20 years. She loved everything and would often smile and say with relish, "... your food is great but you and your wife, Lesley, should come over and taste something really good, my cabbage rolls!"

A few months ago we did, and boy was she right! I now wish I hadn't procrastinated. But such regrets are foolish and besides, as the Russians say, "Better late than never!"

VERSATILE VEGETABLE

In America, cabbage is mostly seen as green or red, with the crinkle-leafed, greenish-yellow savoy being somewhat special.

Won bok, a widely known oblong-shape Chinese cabbage, is called napa in the West. Learned cooks add flakes of dried red chili pepper or julienned fresh ginger to bring out its best flavor.

All cabbages can be slow-cooked, stir-fried, eaten raw or charred and steamed. It's super nutritious, and when handled carefully using time-honored methods, is deeply satisfying.

WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR

Just when I complain about cabbage getting no respect and mockingly cry "Who cares?," Food & Wine magazine proclaims Vintage Cave Honolulu's Cabbage with Miso Crème Fraiche and White Dashi one of the 10 best restaurant dishes of 2013.

Earlier that year while eating there, I was surprised by two tiny, carefully braised squares of caraflex cabbage snuggled against soft pork belly. It hinted of things to come.

Media acclaim often spawns and perpetuates trends. Let's see what World Cabbage Day brings next year.

RECIPE FOR PAT DOERING'S HUNGARIAN-INSPIRED STUFFED CABBAGE ROLLS

Preparing the rolls

1 medium-long shaped cabbage (caraflex) - about 12 leaves. Lightweight cabbage works best for rolls. (If you can't find carflex at a store or farmers' market, savoy cabbage is a good substitute.)

Trim the stem, but do not remove. Insert a fork into the stem for easy handling. Place entire cabbage into a pot of boiling water. When the leaves begin to fall from the stem, remove them one at a time. Trim thick parts and set aside until you are ready to make rolls with the pork filling.

Ingredients

2 pounds ground pork

1 medium head cabbage

1/3 cup rice

1 can sauerkraut

1 egg

1 can tomato juice (dilute with water)

salt and pepper

1 medium onion, chopped

rack of spare ribs

paprika

1 small can of tomatoes

Directions

Wash rice until water runs clear.

Make a "well" in the center of the pork. Mix egg and rice in the 'well," and then mix into the rest of the mixture.

Set ribs, tomatoes, sauerkraut and some chopped sweet cabbage on the bottom of a heavy baking pan.

Layer cabbage rolls on top.

Pour enough heated tomato juice to cover everything.

Add another layer of sauerkraut and chopped sweet cabbage.

Be sure the tomato juice covers everything while baking.

Bake at 350 in a pre-heated oven. When sauce comes to a light boil, reduce to 300 and cook covered for 1 hour.

Bake some sausages with a large can of tomatoes with juice for an hour or two. Serve with the cabbage rolls.

Robert Fong of Bellingham, the former co-owner of Pacific Café, teaches cooking classes and always eats well.

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