Sunday, February 23, 2014

Of Cabbages and Kings

First Gudrais' winter in America;
 Hutchinson, Minnesota March 1951

This has been the winter from hell.  Well, actually, it hasn’t been warm enough to be from there—but in other ways, definitely. The weather has been horrible throughout the country with few exceptions but here in the Midwest (Minnesota) we have really had an unbelievably cold and snowy season.  And, there is no end in sight—below average temperatures are predicted for the next two weeks and this is February 22!!!

Then, somehow, I went from a healthy, active, older woman (read sixties) to being laid low for the first six weeks of the year by a nasty strep/staph infection requiring surgery and antibiotics for 9 weeks.  That keeps me largely home bound.  I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that the weather has been so nasty anyway that I haven’t missed going out that much. 

It won’t come as a surprise to those who follow my blog that the first activity I have tried to do is cooking.  Little by little I have resumed my passion.  So—in thinking about what to write about, I was drawn to something spring-like.  But the spring foods aren’t really in the market yet—at least not at their prime and I checked out the most available foods for February and they are cabbages and bananas.

Cabbage, that versatile, homely, inexpensive vegetable and all its cousins—sounds perfect and oh, so healthy!  First, a little background:  cabbage has been eaten by North Africans, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans for about 4000 years.  It is revered in its various forms by the Slavic and Germanic people.  Northern Americans took to it a little late.  It arrived in Canada on the third voyage of Jacques Cartier in 1541-42.  The American colonists probably planted cabbage, but it was used mostly for stock feed.  There is no written record of it until 1669. 

The versatility and health benefits of cabbage are huge.  It is great either raw or cooked; it can be harvested young and used for salad greens or matured and stuffed, made into kraut or be the mainstay of many a hearty soup.  Even simply steamed and served with butter, salt and pepper, it is delicious. 

Furthermore, it is a nutritional powerhouse.  Vitamins A, B, and C are plentiful and the minerals iron, calcium and potassium are present—as well as a generous amount of fiber.  Studies have shown it to be a giant inhibiter of the development of many cancers, especially breast, stomach, and colon. Its cousins include collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale and kohlrabi and they have the same cancer-fighting properties. 

Most important in my book is that it is delicious.  If your family boiled cabbage to death until it was gray and stinky—it’s time to re-discover this vegetable.  If you eat it solo—don’t overcook it.  Sweat it (cook very slowly) either alone or with some onion or green pepper.  Drain it and pour cream over it (alternatively, add butter) and cook until just hot—don’t boil.  Add salt and pepper—it’s delicious.

Here are a few recipes to try to renew your interest in this venerable vegetable.

Creamy Coleslaw

8 cups shredded green cabbage
3 carrots, shredded
¼ sweet onion, finely chopped
1 ½ cups buttermilk
3 Tbsp. cider vinegar
3 Tbsp. sugar (or to taste)
3 Tbsp. mayonnaise
½ tsp. celery seed
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine cabbage, carrots and onion in a large mixing bowl.  Stir together the buttermilk, vinegar, sugar, mayonnaise and celery seed in a smaller bowl until well blended.  Pour the mixture over the cabbage and toss to combine.  Season.  This will become juicier as it stands for awhile in the refrigerator (2 hours).

Asian Cabbage Soup

8 cups chicken broth
¼ cup soy sauce
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
6-12 wood ear mushrooms, chopped if large
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 scallions, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
¾ pound Chinese noodles
1 Tbsp. dark sesame oil
2 cups diced chicken, or 2 cups diced cooked pork or 1 pound silken tofu, diced.
4-6 cups chopped Chinese cabbage, or a mix of cabbage and greens
1 carrot, julienned
Chinese chili paste with garlic

Combine the broth, soy sauce, rice wine, mushrooms, ginger, garlic and
scallions in large saucepan.  Season with salt and pepper.  Simmer for 25 minutes
Cook noodles in salted, boiling water until just tender.  Drain and keep warm.  Add meat or tofu, cabbage and carrots to the broth and simmer for 10 minutes.  Pass chili sauce as a condiment.

This old-fashioned dish is worth the trouble to make—old world goodness at its best!!

My late mother-in-law, Monika, came from Eastern Europe where cabbage rolls were as common as hamburgers are in America.  She made a great stuffed cabbage dish, but unfortunately, I didn’t get the recipe.  So I re-created it as best I can remember and, after a few tweaks, this comes very close.

Daughter-In-Law Cabbage Rolls

½ pound regular ground beef, not extra lean
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped green pepper
½ cup chopped celery
2 cups beef stock (divided) 
1 cup water
2/3 cup uncooked long grain rice
1 tsp. Italian seasoning (or use a combination of oregano, basil and thyme)
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
8 medium cabbage leaves
½ cup (2 ounces) shredded American or Cheddar cheese
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp butter 
¼ cup shredded American cheese

In a large skillet cook meat, onion, green pepper and celery until meat is brown and vegetables are tender.  Drain fat, if excessive.  Stir in 1 cup beef stock, water, uncooked rice, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper.  Bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or until the rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed.

Trim cabbage and immerse leaves into large pot of boiling water for 3 minutes or until limp, being careful not to crowd the pot.  Stir the cheese into the meat mixture.  Spoon about 1/3 cup meat mixture on each cabbage leaf.  Fold in sides and roll up each leaf, including folded sides in roll.  For sauce:  stir tomato sauce, remaining beef stock, sugar, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper in a bowl.  Pour half of tomato mixture into 9 x 13 oblong baking dish, sprayed with vegetable spray.  Arrange rolls on tomato mixture.  Spoon remaining tomato sauce over cabbage rolls.  Dot with butter.  Cover and bake in 350 oven for 1 hour.  Check to see if cabbage is tender and sauce bubbling.  Dish may be baked for 15 minutes longer, if necessary.  Sprinkle with ¼ cup cheese before serving. 

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