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story.lead_photo.caption Chopped cabbage is stir-fried with chile crisp, soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and garlic. It works as a side dish or a main served with rice. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Even this deep into winter, I still crave the flavors coaxed from winter vegetables. Root vegetables, such as turnips and parsnips, easily transform into roasted sides, soups and mashes. Potatoes offer exquisite comfort in any form. Cabbage, one of the world's most versatile vegetables, single-handedly eliminates boredom in the kitchen and at the table.

A recent trip to a large supermarket revealed more than a half-dozen types of cabbage — from simple tight green heads to burgundy wine-colored orbs, to curly edged savoy to the oblong head of pale napa cabbage. To say nothing of its family members including Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, turnips, radishes, broccoli and cauliflower. The cruciferous family also includes such wonders as arugula, bok choy and watercress.

When I plopped down an overflowing shopping bag, my husband flinched. He questioned the number of heads lined up on the counter and my ability to make something a non-cabbage-lover would enjoy. As well as pleasant aromas to fill a house we rarely leave. Challenge accepted.

Where to start? A skillet full of shredded green cabbage sauteed with bacon and onions always reminds me of a ski trip with a chef friend; her dish is now a family standard. My paternal grandmother's red cabbage, cooked with chopped apple, sugar, vinegar and raisins, makes me sentimental for large family gatherings. Ditto for her labor-intensive cabbage strudel. Mushroom and sauerkraut pierogi, made by our babysitter, proved a hit with our children when they were young.

This winter, I'm looking for big, bold flavors to perk up spirits. A cabbage and red chile stir-fry I enjoy often during business lunches at a Szechwan restaurant in Houston comes to mind. Tongue-tingling Szechwan peppercorns and lots of hot chile oil flow over very crunchy cabbage leaves.

At home, I re-create the dish with the lacy-edged savoy cabbage and the Chinese condiment known as spicy chile crunch (or spicy chile crips). I serve the spicy cabbage as a side to roast chicken and as a meatless main over steaming hot jasmine rice topped with plenty of roasted peanuts.

Our friends from Mielec, Poland, introduced us to bigos, a hearty, tangy, satisfying dish suited for cold winter nights. Some version of this pork and cabbage stew is enjoyed throughout Poland, where it is considered the national dish.

Dried mushrooms and tomato paste (or, often, dried plums) add to the dish's umami flavor. That is the taste sensation that keeps us coming back for more — kind of like a cheesy snack cracker. It's one reason I love the dish — that and the sauerkraut. Yes, sauerkraut. Set judgment aside. The long, slow cooking and the juices from browned pork, render the kraut and the fresh cabbage, into melted goodness.

Take time to source sauerkraut naturally fermented simply with salt — not vinegar and certainly not laced with preservatives. I avoid canned sauerkraut because it tends to be mushy and opt instead for refrigerated versions, such as Bubbies. There are plenty of choices these days due to sauerkraut's popularity with raw and probiotic fans, including Farmhouse Culture, Cleveland Kraut and Cultured Love. Trader Joe's has a refrigerated sauerkraut with sliced pickles in it that is delicious in the recipe that follows.

At home, give the sauerkraut a taste and rinse it under cold running water if it is too salty or tangy for you. Seasoned sauerkraut, purchased from a delicatessen counter, works well in the stew.

My rendition of the classic Polish stew varies depending on what's on hand — sometimes I skip the sauerkraut and use all fresh cabbage. Just as often, I substitute smoked chicken for the smoked pork. On occasion, lean, fully-cooked chicken sausages stand in for rich kielbasa. Both the slow-cooker version and oven version reheat beautifully. Serve the stew with hearty rye bread or a mound of buttery potatoes or noodles.

Cabbage is low in calories and has high nutritional value, including vitamins C and K and glutamine (an amino acid with anti-inflammatory properties).

THE RECIPES

CABBAGE AND CHILE CRISP STIR-FRY

I like the Lao Gan Ma brand of spicy chile crisp imported from China Chinese black bean garlic sauce, Indonesian sambal oelek and Moroccan harissa sauces work well here, too.

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

1 small head (about 2 pounds) savoy or green cabbage or napa cabbage

1/4 cup spicy chile crisp or Chinese black bean garlic sauce or sambal olek or harissa

1 tablespoon each: soy sauce, unseasoned rice vinegar

1 teaspoon dark sesame oil

4 large cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons vegetable oil for high heat cooking (not olive oil)

Chopped fresh cilantro

1/2 cup chopped roasted salted peanuts, optional

Cooked jasmine rice, optional

1. Cut cabbage in half and remove core. Cut into quarters. Cut each quarter into large chunks. You will have about 8 generous cups. Mix chile crisp, soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and garlic in a small dish.

2. Heat a very large deep, nonstick skillet (or use 2 smaller skillets) over medium until a drop of water sizzles on contact. Add vegetable oil and cabbage. Using a splatter guard, cook, stirring often, until cabbage is bright green and crisp-tender, 6-8 minutes. (Napa cabbage will cook the fastest; green cabbage will take the longest.)

3. Stir in chile crisp mixture. Cook and stir to coat the cabbage well, about 1 minute. Transfer to a large serving platter. Sprinkle with cilantro and peanuts, if using. Serve with rice, if you like.

SMOKY PORK STEW WITH MELTED CABBAGE AND SAUERKRAUT

Smoked turkey or chicken can sub for the ham, if you prefer, but add those along with the sausage near the end of the cooking.

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 6 1/2 hours in slow-cooker

Makes: 6 servings

1-2 tablespoons expeller-pressed vegetable oil or bacon fat

2 pounds boneless pork country ribs or pork shoulder, in 2-inch chunks

1/2 ounce dried porcini or dried mixed mushrooms

2 medium (total 8 ounces) yellow onions, roughly chopped

1/2 small head green cabbage, quartered, cored, roughly chopped (or a combination of red and green cabbages), 4-5 cups total (8 ounces)

2 large cloves garlic, crushed

1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms

1/2 cup pilsner-style beer

1/4 cup tomato paste

1/2 teaspoon each: black pepper, caraway seeds, salt

1 1/2 cups drained refrigerated or deli-counter sauerkraut, 8 ounces

4-6 ounces smoked ham, Canadian bacon or smoked pork butt, cut in large chunks

10-12 ounces cooked smoked Polish sausages, pork or chicken kielbasa, sliced 1/2 inch thick

For serving

Small golden potatoes, boiled whole and buttered

Hearty rye bread and soft butter

Creamy horseradish sauce or spicy brown mustard

1. Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, brown the pork on all sides, about 10 minutes per batch. Transfer to a 4-quart slow cooker.

2. Meanwhile, cover porcini mushrooms with 1 cup very hot water; let stand until rehydrated, about 20 minutes. Strain the soaking liquid to remove any grit. Stir mushrooms and strained liquid into the slow cooker.

3. Stir onions into pan drippings in skillet. Cook and stir until brown, 5 minutes. Add cabbage; cook and stir about 4 minutes. Stir in garlic; cook, 1 minute. Stir in fresh mushrooms, beer, tomato paste, black pepper, caraway seeds, salt and 1/3 cup water. Mix well, then transfer to slow cooker.

4. Add sauerkraut and ham chunks to slow cooker. Cover tightly. Slow-cook on low, stirring occasionally, until fresh pork is fork-tender, about 6 hours. Add the sausage slices during the last 30 minutes. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.

5. Serve with boiled potatoes, bread and horseradish sauce or mustard.

Oven version: Do all the browning in a 4- to 5-quart Dutch oven. Then combine all ingredients (except the sausage) in the Dutch oven, adding an additional 1/2 cup water. Cover tightly. Bake at 350 degrees, stirring once or twice, until pork is fork-tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add sausage. Bake until sausage is heated through about 15 minutes.

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