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.

 

 

First Catch Your Brassica

Vegetables, let’s say, are pretty boring, differentiated mainly by colour and by location of growth – those that sit below the ground are started in cold water, those that flourish above are plunged into hot – and fully deserve their status as “side dish”. Well, they do if they’re treated like that. If all proteins were given the same attention – fish started in cold water, land animals in hot, birds steamed (?) – unbrined, unsauced, and barely seasoned, I imagine we’d have a fairly low opinion of them too. The flavours of most meat we eat come as much from the high heat they are subjected too – the Maillard reactions of sugars and protein – as from any inherent ‘meatiness’, while even plainly boiled animal parts are generally partly or fully cured before cooking, giving the gentle richness of tongue or hams.

Vegetables are much maligned, is the point. One way to rehabilitate them is simply to season the hell out of them, as the Italians do; I’ve talked about this before. That’s what we might call the ham approach. The other, then, is to try different ways of cooking – roast, grill, saute. While not every vegetable can take this kind of treatment, the list of ones that can is sometimes surprising – my favourite quick dinner at the moment is wedges of cabbage, dotted with garlic, anchovy, and black pudding, roasted until browned and topped with cheese – and certainly includes all the brassicas.

The cabbagey tendencies of cabbage and co are brought out only by long boiling, a process which, unless you’re cooking for the toothless (young or old) is totally unnecessary. Stir-fry your sprouts; gently braise savoy cabbages; even, if you must, make kale crisps. Certainly, roast your cauliflower. Everyone, it seems, is doing whole roast vegetables at the moment (I think Tom Kerridge started it), and while an entire cauli makes a nice centerpiece, they do better cooked in florets. Smaller pieces = more surface area = more flavour.

In this stupidly popular dish at the cafe (it’s never left the menu), pan-roast cauliflower is served, Turkishly, with hot spiced butter and cool herbed yoghurt – a pleasing array of sensations. This recipe appears in the forthcoming Suffolk Feast cookbook; consider this a teaser.

ROAST CAULIFLOWER, SAFFRON BUTTER, YOGHURT & PINENUTS

1 nice cauliflower
500g thick greek yoghurt
A small handful of mint and parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp sumac
100g pine nuts
100ml white wine vinegar
1 tbsp caster sugar
Pinch saffron
100g cold butter, cubed
Olive oil
Herbs to garnish (we use more parsley, amaranth and purple basil – purple is good)
Salt and pepper
Make the two sauces first. Stir the herbs and sumac into the yoghurt with some seasoning and a good glug of oil. Set aside. For the saffron butter, first toast the pine nuts over a low heat until patchily brown and smelling faintly of popcorn, then tip into a bowl. Increase the heat and add the vinegar, saffron and sugar, letting it bubble down to a bright orange syrup.
Now, half on and half off the heat, whisk in the butter piece by piece – it’ll split if it gets too hot, if you add the butter too quickly, or if it’s left about for too long. When you have a nice glossy sauce, add the sauce to the pine nuts, and keep warm, next to the oven or over a pan of hot water.
Right. Preheat the oven to 200°C, separate the cauli into florets, and find a pan big enough to hold them in a single layer. Get it hot and add enough oil to coat the bottom. Now add the cauliflower and some salt, and for a moment pretend you are sautéing chicken. Leave the florets to brown on one side, then turn them carefully and let them brown again. Give the pan a shake and pop in the oven to finish cooking, which should only take 5 minutes or so. (You can do the whole operation on the hob if you don’t fancy turning the oven on for 5 minutes’ work – handy if you’re doing something else in it, though).
When the stalks yield to the point of a knife, they’re ready. Make a pool of herb yoghurt at the bottom of each plate, then toss the butter and some parsley through the cauliflower and pile it on top. Garnish with herbs and more sumac. It’s done.