Mon petit chou

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The Independent Culture
I have long associated cabbage with VI Lenin - as prepared by his wife Krupskaya, on whose teeny inheritance (something like pounds 100) this malodorous man shuffled off daily to the library in Zurich to importune his friends and excoriate his enemies. He was a true sort of dirty, sharp- bearded Robespierre. The reasons he went off were that the library was warm; it received all those tedious revolutionary journals by sectarians; and the Ulyanovs' cramped apartment, whose only light came from a courtyard well, smelled of boiled cabbage.

One has to doubt that Krupskaya was much of a cook or Lenin a fin bec, but it is maligning a noble vegetable merely to boil it. On such a diet, any man would start an evil revolution. Occidit miseros crambe repetita magistros, said Juvenal: next-day cabbage kills poor Teach.

I have a particular, un-Russian fondness for cabbage, it having provided me with the first five bucks I ever made writing about food. There was this competition, in the wartime New York to which I had been exiled, to find cheap, unrationed dishes which could be made by even the most unskilled cook. I concocted a cabbage pie laced with turmeric and currants that carried off the prize for the day. And proud I was.

Now the truth about cabbages is that, in their lovely and varied forms, they are all subtly different, powerful, compact and highly indigestible plants, and unless treated with tender care, they will take their revenge out on you. This has led many to approach the cabbage as if it were Carthage and must be subdued and destroyed: stuck in water, and cooked until soggy and unrecognisable. But it is not an enemy, rather a slightly acid friend, one whose distinctiveness survives in any of the literally hundreds of ways in which it can be prepared, alone or in combination. Like others of its family (you may remember Mark Twain's dictum in Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar that "cauliflower is but cabbage with a college education"), it is the pre-eminent, durable vegetable of the winter. It makes not only those farmhouse soups that make the pages of 19th-century Russian novels so redolent (and those of the equivalent German novels so gemutlich) of large, noisy families and steaming, slurped soup plates - but also dishes of great delicacy, such as steamed Chinese cabbage with dumplings.

Though nearly all sorts (but not red cabbage) can be chopped up and quick-fried - delicious when mixed with glazed baby onions - and though shredding the cabbage is an ancient tradition which makes everything from coleslaw to multi-vegetable combinations such as the Romanian givech, my advice is to stick close to the whole thing: the head itself, well pruned of its outer leaves and thick stalks. If you want the full fragrance of a cabbage with its due accompaniment of salt, that old French classic, the chou au beurre, will do very nicely - providing, of course, that your cabbage hasn't been bruised by weeks in a Fulham market barrow, and that you use the best butter you can find.

Chou au beurre, serves 4

Take one head of cabbage, medium-sized, and wash and trim it with care, getting, so to speak, to the heart of the matter. Blanch it in boiling water for five minutes. In a casserole that fits the cabbage as closely as possible, cover the bottom with about 110g/4oz of bacon or, even better, pancetta, sliced thinly; add at least 55g/2oz of butter (with freshly ground salt if the butter is unsalted); cover closely and cook for about 45 minutes on a low fire, adding butter if needed. (Young cabbages will take less time to cook, but the test is: firm, but not enough to resist a fork.)

The prince of cabbage dishes is the stuffed, or farci. Here is the recipe offered by Ginette and Rene Tavernier (parents of the film-maker; he is one of the more honest of post-War French intellectuals and she is an excellent cook).

Chou farci, serves 4-5

Prepare your cabbage by ridding yourself, as above, of the tough outer leaves and stalks and detaching the leaves. Plunge the leaves in boiling water for a few minutes, or until they wilt. In a separate bowl, prepare your farce. This can be anything from yesterday's stew or joint, to left-over veal or sausage meat. Mix it with 200g/7oz of petit sale, or pickled pork, two eggs, a good handful of coarse breadcrumbs soaked in milk, a handful of chopped chard (to set off the sweetness of the cabbage), a finely-chopped onion, a clove of garlic and about 110g/4oz of cooked rice.

Take your cabbage leaves, put a good layer into the bottom of a casserole and build up alternate layers of stuffing and cabbage, concluding with cabbage leaves. Cover with a good stock to match your meat (veal is best), add grated cheese (a good Gruyere or Emmenthal is the most flavoursome; fontina is good, too), and cook in a medium oven, uncovered, for at least an hour. The longer it cooks, the better it tastes, and it remains excellent when reheated.

An alternative to this method of cooking is to make individual portions of your farce wrapped in cabbage leaves; the rest remains the same.

The point of both these dishes is that cabbage requires slow cooking and combining with ingredients that soften, sweeten and generally dilute the primitive, pungent flavour of the cabbage. One does not need to do the same with bok choi or Chinese cabbage, which, like its cousin the endive, makes a marvellous side dish when braised on a slow fire in good beef or veal stock.

I like to think that Russian history would have been different if Krupskaya had had just a little gastronomical training, for, as Jean-Paul Aron noted, "the real glory of the gourmand lies in competence, which is rare because it combines so many different elements." In other words, cooking cabbage is not just dropping it into water and letting it sit. Not in Zurich, not anywhere