Cabbage-head


They’re funny things, brassicas, capable, depending on context, age and variety, of Italian sophistication, Teutonic rigour or gently British irrelevance. Few gourmands would admit to a love of a broccoli and tuna pasta bake; reconfigure that as purple sprouting, orecchiette and bottarga and you have a death-row meal. Although your basic cauliflower is now gaining in popularity over the fractal, reptilian Romanesque, there is still a rigid hierarchy of cabbages, with varieties like hispi, January King, and that flat stuffable one allowed on to menus never sullied by the honest white, mainstay of coleslaw and kebab shops.

 

The cabbage, plain and dull as it might be, is one of our oldest vegetables, a gift, as with so many other edibles, of the Romans – I don’t know where they got it from. At one time it would have formed almost the entire diet of the European peasant, from Naples to Nottingham; it’s no wonder we have so many varieties. Luckily, the cabbage takes well to inteference and mutation. The cauliflower, as its name suggests, is a sort of artificially fattened cabbage blossom, allowed to let itself go almost to seed, becoming bloated and corpulent; its sleeker, odder cousin is the kohlrabi. This is one of those vegetables rarely seen outside of restaurants, and has never received an English name. In (I think) Dutch, it simply means ‘cabbage-turnip’, but I prefer Cabbage-Head. Vaguely resembling a root, it is in fact a fat, distended cabbage stalk, with only a few waving leaves and tendrils to remind you of its cabbage-hood. It is crisp, sweet and appley, with only a whisper of mustardy brassical heat, excellent raw in slaws, remoulades and pickles – so much so, in fact, that I’ve never cooked with it, and I’m not sure I want to.

 

It has a great affinity with aniseed flavours and with fish, and slips well into the sort of fennel-orange-chicory combinations that are your main salad option at this time of year; try finely slicing all of the above, dressing with capers, bitter oil and sweet white vinegar, and serving with crisply seared cod cheeks. Shredded and mixed with scant spoonfuls of aioli, it stands up to thinly sliced raw or cured beef as well as to poached salt ling, flaked through a salad with handfuls of roughly chopped herbs. Lacking these things, or with an abundance of winter vegetables, this mixed pickle is an excellent thing to make. The bitter citrus cuts through the mild funk of fermentation, and the whole thing is like a jar of pale winter sun.

 

MIXED PICKLE

70 g salt

70 g sugar

a few juniper berries, peppercorns, bay leaves and cloves

1 kohlrabi

2 fat carrots

1 bulb of fennel

4 sticks of celery

1 onion, preferably sweet and white

1 lemon

1 blood orange

3 cloves of garlic

 

Put the sugar, salt and spices in a pan with 2 L of water and bring to the boil, just to dissolve the salt and sugar. Leave to cool down while you prepare the vegetables.

These can be more or less thinly sliced. I like them shredded, so the whole is more like a spoonable condiment that individual ‘pickles’, but that’s up to you; the lemon and orange should be good and thin, though, whatever else you do. The fermentation will take longer the bigger the pieces are, mind. Pack the veg into a sterilised jar and pour over the brine. Seal and leave somewhere warmish.

In a few days they should start clouding over – this is good. Start tasting soon after, and refrigerate when you’re happy with the pickliness. The lactic sourness should be enough to counteract the bitter lemon.

 

 

Carne-val

It is, of course, Pancake Day, Shrove or more pleasingly Fat Tuesday, more romantically Mardi Gras, time for Carnival, carne-val, when we prepare for the month-long renunciation of meat and much else that is the Lenten Fast by stuffing ourselves silly with all of the things that will soon be forbidden – except we don’t, really, because few people – outside, presumably, of monasteries and convents – go the full Catholic hog any more, the asceticism of the Roman tradition having withered along with some of its mystery in the hearty CofE. A Good Catholic Boy I used to work with once told me (I think I’ve got this right) that although most people give up something for Lent, in the ‘modern’ Church it is considered more as an opportunity to take something up, whether a useful and improving hobby or generic good works – like that Good Deed A Day book you had to keep as a Cub Scout, but just for a month.

 

The Coptic Christians of, chiefly, Ethiopia and Egypt, desert-forged by the tribulations of St Anthony (of Flaubert and Dali fame) keep a calendar which involves fasting of some kind for, I think, around two-thirds of the year; it’s believed that their often meatless diet gave us falafel, fuul medames, and other vegetarian staples of the Middle East. I have no idea what they do for Lent, but I assume it is strict. Although some people of my acquaintance do renounce some little thing for a month – Creme Eggs, takeaway pizzas, casual sex – for most of us happily godless heathens, today is just another day in the slow trundle towards easeful death. If we have a yearly fast, it is the grey feast-weary month of January; personally, I don’t believe in ever giving anything up at all. I still, for example, eat Babybel.

 

However, it wouldn’t do to throw the baby out with the metaphor, particularly if that baby (bear with me here) is a foodstuff. Today entirely deserves its modern British appellation, lacking though it might the weight and glamour of history; it is the day on which, without guilt or fear of reproach, you can eat pancakes. For DINNER. Recent years have seen the fat American pancake, fluffy with buttermilk and baking powder, make inroads into our breakfast culture; this is ok. Breakfast (or brunch, more accurately) is a time to be frivolous, to have bacon and banana and blueberries on a fat, syrup-soaked drop scone. I have made thousands of these pancakes over the last few years, and I still enjoy eating them; that is high praise. You have all year to eat those, though. Pancake Day is for the eating, at dinner, of crepes. I, for one, have never made a crepe on any other day – though I have been guilty of off-season galettes.

 

While galettes (especially the buckwheat variety) are good with shredded ham and good strong cheese, crepes should be eaten with lemon and sugar; in this Ed Smith and I are in agreement. As the redoubtable M. de Courchamps noted, even jam is an “affectation”. (Thanks to Bee Wilson for that piece of wisdom). In my younger days I would add to this duo golden syrup; I still might, if I didn’t find the bother of keeping the tin and its surroundings clean to be more trouble than the contents seem worth. As for treacle – pff! There is not world enough, and time – but I suppose that is rather beside the point. No one in their right mind would put treacle on a pancake. If we agree that lemon and sugar – and in small quantities – are the only necessities for crepe-topping, then Pancake Day becomes a very affordable feast, one which could have been achieved with only the store-cupboard ingredients on Ready Steady Cook, leaving you a fiver to buy a Django Reinhardt CD to cook to – essential for the preparation of crepes.

 

All of this makes the proliferation of those pancake mix kits all the more baffling; there are several brands in my local Spar, from Peppa Pig to retro Americana. Presumably food companies have realised that an unexploited feast-day is lost profit for them, and hastily put a quite astonishing mark-up on homeopathic amounts of cheap, plentiful ingredients; perhaps they’re simply trying to bring the joy of pancakes to households lacking the time or wherewithal to measure things. Assuming you have both of these luxuries, making pancakes is really extremely easy; pancakes of some sort, being an incredibly primitive form of bread, must have been some of our species’ earliest processed foods. I’d take Ed’s advice, above, and use St Delia’s recipe. This is the kind of thing she’s best at. Just remember that the first one is always the worst, that flipping is all in the wrist, and that you’ll eat more than you need but less than you want, and you can’t really go wrong.