Cabbages (and things)

  
Dinner last night, after a weekend of fairly gluttonous feasting, was a nearly meat-free dish of white cabbage wedges, thickly pot-roast on a bed of beans, bacon and leeks; taking around an hour and a half of hands-off cooking, it was reasonably delicious, although it would have been more so if the cabbage had been fermented first. The deep umami flavours of sauerkraut cooked with cured pork are quite extraordinary, something the Poles, the Germans, the Alsatians and indeed the Luxembourgeois know full well.

 

The week before we had eaten a pot-roast red cabbage, simply browned in lard and then cooked slowly in its own juices; served with stewed apple and a heaping dollop of creme fraiche, it was a revelation, with meaty, giving textures and a real depth of flavour, from charred and peppery to rich, sweet mustard – but what else would you expect from Stephen Harris? The Sportsman head chef’s recipes, which express the elegant precision of his cooking in simple language and accurate instructions, are a great gift to both the lay and the professional cook; almost as great as his grotty, rundown pub by the sea.

 

One of the reasons Fergus Henderson has become such a towering figure, aside from his revolutionary cooking, his unimprovable restaurants, and his remarkable dress sense, is the work of his acolytes across London and beyond. Justin Gelattly, James Lowe, Claire Ptak, Lee Tiernan; if these were the only cooks to have passed through his kitchen his legacy would be assured. They aren’t, of course. Noble Rot, a dark and odd wine bar in Bloomsbury which approaches, between the colfondo prosecco and the violent espresso, its own particular perfection, has a kitchen headed up by one Paul Weaver, who has done time under both St Fergus and Stephen Harris, who also consults on the menu.

 

Now, I’m not a restaurant reviewer, and possess neither the patience nor the vocabulary to be one; look elsewhere for a fuller appreciation of this excellent, terse menu, which raises a brasserie menu du jour to a particular, vibrant beauty. I’m still thinking about the Comte tart, warm and quivering, with a custard that offers no resistance to the edge of a fork and a pastry which crumbles in all the right places; of the salad of red chicories and pickled walnuts, sweet and bitter and razor-sharp. It is the sort of thing that you eat in an anonymous station bistro with a glass of rose and dream about for the rest of your life; to have it easily available in West London seems cheating, somehow, but also glorious.

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.