Here we examine the various kinds of cabbage, the method of braising, and my history with the greatest of American chefs Julia Child; her writings inspired this exceptional recipe for braised cabbage-her recommendation as an accompaniment for pork.
Child’s Various Methods of Braising Cabbage
In her roti de porc aux choux, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child braises the cabbage in with the pork in a covered casserole, for about an hour, after first parboiling it. In my last entry for cote de porc sauce nenette-adapted from Child’s recipe–it is not possible to cook the cabbage in with the pork, as in this case the loin chops are only braised for 25 minutes. Child also has a receipt for chou rouge a la limousine, in which the cabbage is braised in four cups of liquid in the oven, until all the moisture is incorporated (five hours). Here I provide my own recipe, inspired by various instructions of Child’s, which takes one hour for braising. 1
What exactly is involved in the process of braising? Child defines it: “to brown foods in fat, then cook them in a covered casserole with a small amount of liquid”. Such is seen in the braising of the pork chops in my last entry; there the meat was browned first; then, it is baked covered, or braised sitting in a small amount of butter, in the oven. 2
Child further explains that Americans use this same term for vegetables cooked in butter in a covered casserole, such as in today’s recipe. This process is rather defined by the French verb etuver, for which we have no English equivalent. Therefore, today’s braised cabbage is actually chou etuves au beurre-in other words: cabbage etuves in butter. 3
Varieties of Cabbage
The original wild cabbage is native to the salty, sunny Mediterranean seaboard; this habitat gives cabbage its thick, succulent, waxy leaves and stalks, which make it such a hardy plant. Around two and a half millennium ago, this wild cabbage was domesticated, and because of its tolerance to cold climates, it became an important staple vegetable in Eastern Europe. China probably was first to begin the practice of pickling it. 4
Brassica olerancea-a plant genus in the complicated cabbage family- is Mediterranean in origin. It includes these species: cabbage (var. capitata), Portuguese cabbage (var. tronchuda), kale, collards (var. acephala), broccoli (var. italica), cauliflower (var. botrytis), Brussel sprouts (var. gemmifera), and kohlrabi (var. gonglylodes). 5
Brassica Rapa, another genus in the cabbage family, has Central Asian origins with the following species: turnip (var. rapifera), broccolirabe, broccoletti di rape (var. rapifera), Chinese cabbage, bok choy (var. pekinensis), tatsoi (var. narinosa), Mizuana, mibuna (var. nipposinica). 6
There are also accidental hybrids: rutabaga, canola (Brassica napus), brown mustard, mustard greens (Brassica juncea), and Ethiopian mustard (Brassica carinata). Finally, broccolini (Brassica oleracea x alboglabra) is an intentional hybrid. 7
Chemical Weapons in Cabbage Generate Its Strong Flavors
The cabbage family is a group of formidable chemical warriors, producing strong flavors. (For more on defensive chemicals, as seen in herbs, see Sage Turkey Delight.) Cabbages stockpile two kinds of defensive chemicals in their tissues: flavor precursors-glucosinolates-and enzymes that act on the precursors to liberate the reactive flavors. When the plant’s cells are damaged, such as in chopping, the two stockpiles are mixed, and the enzymes start a chain of reactions that bring about bitter, pungent, strong-smelling compounds. 8
Each cabbage-family-vegetable will contain a number of different precursor glucosinolates, and the combinations are characteristic; this is why cabbages, broccoli, mustard greens, and Brussels sprouts have similar but distinctively different flavors. 9
Flavors Strongest at Core
The chemical defensive system is most active in young, actively growing tissues; for instance, the portions near the cabbage core are twice as active as the outer leaves, and thus have the strongest flavor. We see this same principal in Brussels sprouts, with their strongest flavor being at their center also. 10
Cabbage Flavors Change with Seasons
Growing conditions have a great influence on the amount of flavor precursors stockpiled in the plant. It is important to know that hot weather and drought stress increase them. Cold, rain, and dim sunlight, however, reduce the flavor precursors; thus, cabbage grown in the autumn and winter will be much milder. 11
As mentioned above in chou rouge a la limousine, Child braises the cabbage in four cups of broth and water, until all the liquid is cooked out (five hours). This process of soaking cabbage in liquid leaches out the strong flavor compounds that are present in it; this is helpful if it is a summer crop. Keeping this in mind, my cabbage recipe, braised rather in a small amount of butter, is made ideally during the cooler fall, winter, early spring seasons, with its milder tasting cabbage.
Various Preparation Methods Effect Flavor Balances
Different cooking and preparation methods give different flavor balances in cabbage relatives. For instance, the process of cutting cabbage increases the liberation of these flavor compounds from precursors, but not only this, it also increases the production of the precursors! Add an acidic sauce to chopped cabbage for coleslaw, and some pungent products increase six-fold. (Soaking chopped cabbage in water will remove most of the flavor compounds formed by chopping, as can be seen in Child’s recipe above.) On the other hand, fermenting cabbage and its relatives, such as in making kimchi, sauerkraut, and other pickles, transforms nearly all the flavor precursors and their products into less bitter, less pungent substances. 12
My Personal History with Julia Child
I received my first letter from Julia Child in December of 1985. It was her response to my query, concerning whether she was interested in my food history research, in five obscure countries, in which I had intentions to travel. Her reply was extremely gracious, showing her ever-present support of upcoming chefs in our nation: she gently let me know she couldn’t use my research presently, as she was busy writing another cook book.
My references for my business, as found in this blog, contain her letter’s opening statement: “Your method of combining food history and food preparation sounds interesting and entertaining.”
In 1994, I knew Child was going to be on the west coast for a convention of chefs. At this same time, I was planning to do a fundraiser at a posh Portland restaurant for the Oregon History Center; thus, I sent her an invitation to dinner.
My favorite response of hers (there were five letters altogether) arrived in the mail shortly thereafter. It was a postcard, with words ringing out in her typical Julia-Child-voice: “Would I could but be there, but it won’t be possible at this present time.” She went on to praise my endeavor and signed it with yours truly. What joy!
Don’t discard this recipe quickly, thinking why take one and a half hours, to prepare a vegetable that can be cooked normally in 20 minutes. Rather be alerted: braising is a slow but simple process, with knock-your-socks-off-end-results.
The tortoise/hare analogy represents important principles for us to follow in these present days. The hare is hurried, impetuous, thoughtless, and often foolish. On the other hand, the tortoise is slow, steady, purposeful, calm, and therefore invincible.
This latter always wins the race, while the former often gets side-tracked along the way, which may mean missing the final goal entirely; thus, we heed this lesson, so we don’t miss out on any rewards for our endeavors.
Achieving this goal requires that we pay close attention to the immediate battle at hand, but not at the expense of losing sight of the whole war. Always we are in tune with our inner guide, going only when and where directed, in these perilous days.
Most important, we allow the needed time for the simmering process to take place, as with the cabbage. As a wise tortoise, we are slow and steady, strong and faithful, in everything we do.
These are glorious times; we miss nothing as we move forward, especially in our ministering to those around us. Flavors beyond our imagination will arise, if we give room to the “braising process”, in both the cabbage and our ordained works.
The result of taking the time to braise cabbage is quite dramatic! I encourage you to try this simple method, which transforms an ordinary food. See recipe below.
- Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1961, reprinted eighteen times, twentieth printing, May 1971), pp. 384, 385, 387, 496, 497.
- Ibid., p. 11.
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 323.
- Ibid., p. 320, The American Heritage Dictionary, and Wikipedia
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), p. 320
- Ibid., p. 321.
- Ibid., p. 322.
Braised Cabbage Yields: 6-8 servings. Active prep time: 20 min/ Inactive baking time: 1 hr. May be made ahead and reheated.
1 1/4 lb green cabbage, cut into 1/2” slices (Organic is best.)
4 tbsp butter
1 med onion, cut in even 1/8” slices
2 minced cloves of garlic (For easy prep, may substitute 1 cube of frozen garlic; available at Trader Joe’s.)
1 tsp salt (Himalayan, pink, or Real salt is critical for optimum health; an inexpensive, fine grind Himalayan salt is available at Costco for $4.95/5 lbs.)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- May cut cabbage in 1/2” slices, with a sharp knife, or better yet use a food processor and its slicing attachment (see photo). Set sliced cabbage aside.
- Cut onions in even 1/8” slices and mince garlic; set aside
Melt the butter over medium heat in a casserole, or a 3-quart pan with a lid that is stove top/oven proof.
- Add onions and garlic and sweat-cook until translucent-stirring occasionally. See photo.
Place half the cabbage in with onions, stirring until fat is well distributed throughout vegetable; then, incorporate other half of cabbage; see photo below.
- Blend in salt well. Add 1/8 cup of water to casserole, cover, and place in oven. Bake for 1 hour, being sure to stir several times during this period (see photo of finished product at top of recipe).
- Serve immediately, or this may be made ahead and reheated. These flavors are incredible!