Cabbage patch at Sulgrave Manor Gardens - this is what vegetables look like before they end up at Tesco's, kids
Originally uploaded by ell brown who kindly lets me use it according to Creative Commons. Thank you!
Cabbage is a very important staple on the Swedish Christmas table. Green and creamy, red and braised with spices, curly sauteed with butter... King of cabbage though, particularly in the south of Sweden, is the browned cabbage.
Traditionally caramelized with dark syrup and then given some acidity with vinegar it is a mainly sweet concoction with a slight zing to it. Usually served with pork, the combination is mouthwatering.
When I was a kid my mum used to make a big batch every year before Christmas and I used to hate it. It stunk up the kitchen (I thought, mum and dad of course thought it was lovely, reminding them of their family Christmases), it tasted iffy and brown cabbage just made you fart, keeping the stink going for days! (While there is some truth to that, I think I mainly was just grasping for reasons to not eat it.)
As I grew up I changed my mind entirely. Today I love cabbage, which is good considering that it truly is a super food packed with fibre, vitamin C, beta carotene, folic acid just to mention a few of the key nutrients.
Indeed, in the old days cabbage used to be called "the drug of the poor"... It has been said to alleviate ulcer, reduce risk of heart problems and improve your metabolism.
It is also low in calories, a "problem" the process of browning will get rid of, as you will see when we get to the recipe. Ehrm.
Whatever you think of the talk about super foods and balanced diets keeping health problems at bay better than any pill it is a fact that most countries across Europe and Asia have a history of great cabbage dishes.
The Polish have their bigos (even referred to as their national dish and my personal favourite), in France you find chocroute, Germans swear by their sauerkraut, in Italy you will find a range of amazing dishes based on cavalo nero (black kale, so tasty just sauteed with lots of butter) and as far away as Korea, China and Japan you find fermented and pickled varieties of cabbage served as a staple food.
Me, I love all of them.
So as I started to celebrate Christmas on my own, to my mother's great sorrow, I of course wanted that smell of cabbage simmering away in my kitchen. Do we always become our parents?
I got the recipe from my mom, to do it the way she did. Needless to say, it never got as good as I remembered it. I decided to change the recipe to make it my own. In that way, of course it will be the best browned cabbage in the world to my kids, should I ever decide to have any.
Both recipes are listed here, as the way my mom makes it is very traditionally Swedish and I want to keep that recipe filed for the future. It is a family recipe after all.
My own variety, listed after the more traditional one, is a combination of Swedish and Polish. The best cabbage I ever had was served to me piping hot in a small farmer's cabin in the Polish countryside outside of Olsztyn. If only I had not got so drunk on vodka with horse semen in it (as we found out after a few shots, asking Janos why he called it "Pferde vodka"...) I would have remembered to get the recipe...
Browned cabbage - traditional recipe
Ingredients (serves 4-6)
1 kg white cabbage (roughly one head)
3-4 tbsp butter
2 tbsp syrup (maple syrup works great)
3-4 dl stock (chicken or vegetable is fine)
1/2-1 dl white vine vinegar
salt for seasoning
A note about the stock. If you want to be really traditional, what you do is first boil your Christmas ham. You then use the stock from that pot to make your browned cabbage. I love it when nothing goes to waste. Using ordinary chicken or vegetable stock works fine though.
Quarter the cabbage head and remove the base. Cut in centimetre wide strips. Brown the cabbage in batches in a frying pan on medium heat. Start each batch with melting 1 tbsp of butter, add the cabbage and give it a stir. Leave it for a few minutes allowing it to wilt and brown. Season with some salt.
Add some of the syrup and let the cabbage caramelize while stirring. When you clearly can see the cabbage turn colour from white and green to translucent and brown at the edges (although it will not go completely brown yet), transfer it to a big pot and start frying the next batch.
When all cabbage has been nicely caramelized and transferred to the pot, add in 1/2 dl of vinegar and half of the stock. Bring it to a boil, then let it simmer away over low heat, stirring it now and then. You need to let it simmer away for about an hour, and half way through you will probably need to top up with some more stock. You can also top up with some more vinegar if you want more acidity. I prefer mine more sweet, so 1/2 dl usually does the trick.
You will see the cabbage go gradually darker. After 45 minutes to an hour, possibly more, the stock will have steamed away and the cabbage gone all brown. At this stage you need to be careful and stir all the time, so as not to burn it. You want it a deep, rich brown, but no burning as it will bring a bitter taste to the dish.
Browned cabbage - the Magnus way
Ingredients (serves 4-6 or 2 with excellent leftovers for breakfast the next day...)
As above, but add:
150 grams of lardons
1 big yellow onion, halved and sliced
1 big green and really tart apple, chopped
Addition of the lardons is inspired by the Polish bigos. The onion and apple add some more freshness to it and makes the marriage with pork even better in my opinion.
Fire up your most trusted frying pan and start with frying the lardons quite a long time on a low to medium heat, releasing as much as possible of the fat and juices.When done, transfer to a big pot.
Then, following the instructions above, fry the cabbage in batches but in this version a little of the onion and the apple goes in with each batch. Transfer to the big pot.
After you have transferred the last batch, pour some of the stock in the frying pan and bring to a boil, loosening all the remains of lardons and browned cabbage in the bottom of the pan. Scrape it all loose with your spatula, and pour all of it in the big pot with the cabbage.
Do the thing with the vinegar and stock as described above, making sure the pot doesn't boil dry and you burn the cabbage leaves.
Once you have added all the stock, you will basically hear when it is getting close to done. The sound coming from the pot will go from a bubble and simmer to a sizzling sound as the cabbage starts frying again. That's when you definitely need to take it off the heat.
When done, place on dinner table in a big steaming bowl and serve with some pork. Christmas ham, gammon, cold cuts of meat, slow roast pork belly... The fattier the better! It is winter, we need the energy and calories to last until next bountiful spring and summer. Or we could just go to Tesco's I guess.
Browned cabbage is as good cold as warm, and it is always better the next day after a night in the fridge. If you do reheat it, a tip my mother gave me was to add a little bit of stock in with the cabbage to bring back a really nice silky sheen to it as it can go a bit dull when it cools down.