Here, I thought, was a cabbage enthusiast who must know a great deal about cooking with them. So I congratulated the gardener on his patch and asked what he did with them all. There was a pause, and then, like a giant breaker, the word came crashing down: "Coleslaw".
It is not that coleslaw is so awful, just that there are so many better things to do with cabbage. Eaten raw, it is prone to taste, well, cabbagey, but there are ways of cooking it that release sweet, nutty aromas to flatter with juniper and nutmeg or enliven with tart fruits and balsamic vinegar.
At Alastair Little in Soho, I recently ate sweet and sour spiced cabbage made by Juliet Peston to accompany turbot fried in a maize crust. It is an inspired interpretation of kimchi, a Korean equivalent of sauerkraut: for this, "Peking" or "Napa" cabbage is salted, then buried in a pot and fermented. The Koreans dig into it throughout the year and it is hot with chillies and garlic.
You can make it overnight. Firstly, salt and shred a white cabbage and weigh it down with a plate. Leave it for up to four days, preferably not in the fridge, to achieve the necessary hint of sourness. Rinse and mix in some thin strips of carrot and daikon radish. Peston makes a dressing with rice wine vinegar, saki, sugar, coriander, cumin, turmeric, chillies and grated ginger, and pickles the salted cabbage for several hours, in a tray.
Cabbage seems to be getting a new lease of life, thanks perhaps to the influence of "Pacific Rim" styles and the many Chinese "choys" now available. These need to be dealt with separately from our home-grown favourites, but there is an overlap: green, white and Savoy cabbage lend themselves to sweet, sour and hot Thai dressings, or to being sauteed with a little sesame oil and soy sauce. It goes surprisingly well with fish, especially mackerel and grey mullet roasted in a hot oven with garlic and olive oil, or with tuna.
But in truth, my heart lies with all those jazzed up granny-style cabbage dishes. Sweet and sour red cabbage with plenty of brown sugar and vinegar, and either some apple or cranberries, or raisins and hazelnuts added. And really creamy cabbage dishes with the faintest hint of caraway, or the Irish great Colcannon, a blend of mashed potato and cabbage.
It is always worth cooking extra, for those times when you just happen to have a bowl of leftover mashed or boiled potatoes, and a bowl of cooked cabbage which you can turn into bubble and squeak: fry them together in butter or olive oil, with a little garlic if you like, turning the bubble and squeak as it becomes golden and crispy on the base. A bottle of Lea and Perrins on the table and you're away.
Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage with Cranberries, serves 4
1 small red cabbage (about 800g/134 lb)
55g/2oz unsalted butter
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
40g/112 oz brown sugar
3 tbsp red wine
2 bay leaves
mascarpone to serve
Discard the outer leaves of the cabbage, quarter it and remove the hard core and finely slice the leaves. Clarify the butter by melting it in a large saucepan, skim off the surface foam, decant the clear yellow liquid (the clarified butter) and discard the milk solids on the base.
Return the clarified butter to the saucepan and sweat the cabbage with the seasoning until it gives off a nutty aroma and is glossy and relaxed. Add the sugar and balsamic vinegar and cook to evaporate it. Add the red wine and bay leaves, cover the pan, reduce the heat and braise for 15-20 minutes, stirring halfway through.
Add the cranberries. Cover and cook for another ten minutes, stirring halfway through. Serve with a dollop of mascarpone.
Caldo Verde, serves 4-6
This hearty Portuguese soup often includes garlic sausage, I have added soy sauce to give it a bit of depth. The Portuguese make it using a variety of cabbage called "Galega", not unlike spring greens. I like really thick slabs of toast with it, and like all those basic Italian soups, this is a showplace for a good olive oil.
400g/14oz Savoy cabbage (trimmed weight)
900g/2lb main-crop potatoes
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 beefsteak tomato, peeled, seeded and diced
1.4l/212 pt water
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp coarsely chopped coriander
Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage, quarter and cut out the core. Slice leaves very finely into grass-like strands. Peel and cube the potatoes and place in a saucepan with the garlic, tomato and water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes, then mash to a coarse puree. Add the soy sauces and season.
To serve, add the cabbage, bring back to the boil and simmer for five minutes; adjust seasoning. Serve in warm bowls with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil drizzled over each serving and a scattering of coriander.
Stuffed Cabbage with Porcini and Gruyere serves 4
Usually stuffed cabbage dishes alarm me on account of being fiddly, but then a friend suggested this method of cooking the outside leaves and lining a deep bowl with them, then layering the heart with the other ingredients inside. You then turn it out and cut into it like a cake.
15g/12 oz porcini
1 medium green cabbage (1.275kg/2lb 10oz)
28g/1oz unsalted butter and extra for dish
1 garlic clove peeled and minced
2 shallots, peeled and minced
150ml/5fl oz white wine
150ml/5fl oz double cream
I heaped tsp of beurre manie (equal quantities of plain flour and unsalted butter blended)
175g/6oz grated Gruyere
Cover porcini with 150ml/5fl oz boiling water and leave to soak for 15 minutes. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Discard damaged outer leaves of the cabbage, then remove the outer eight leaves and cut out the tough midribs. Quarter the remaining heart, cut out the hard core and slice the leaves.
Add the whole leaves to the pan, bring back to the boil and cook for four minutes. Put in a sink of cold water and then squeeze thoroughly with your hands. Add the remaining cabbage to the pan, bring back to the boil and cook for five minutes, drain in a colander. Once cool, squeeze these with your hands.
Drain the porcini and chop them, reserving liquor. Melt the butter in a frying pan and sweat the garlic and shallots for a couple of minutes. Add the chopped porcini to heat through, then the wine. Reduce by two-thirds. Add the cream, and cook until it thickens, pour in the reserved mushroom liquor and cook for a few minutes. Season. Stir in the beurre manie and allow the sauce to thicken.
Butter a 18cm/7in souffle dish or equivalent mould. Reserving one leaf for the top, arrange the whole cabbage leaves on the base and around the sides, draping them over it. Layer the sliced cabbage with the sauce and cheese, starting with a layer of cabbage. You will need three layers of cabbage and two of sauce and cheese and remember to season the cabbage layers. Lay the reserved cabbage leaf on the top and enclose with the overhanging leaves, Cover with foil.
Preheat the oven to 190C (fan oven)/200C (electric oven)/400F/gas mark 6 and bake for about 45 minutes. Invert on to a plate.
Stir-fried White Cabbage, serves 4-6
Here is this month's quickie.
I small white cabbage (725g/1lb 10oz)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
freshly grated nutmeg
Remove outer leaves from cabbage, quarter, discard core and finely slice leaves. Cook in two batches: heat olive oil in a frying pan, add the garlic and moments later add the cabbage and cook, tossing, until it is coloured at the edges like fried onions, and tender. Season while cooking with salt, pepper and nutmegReuse content