Cabbages for kings: Mark Hix turns over a brand new leaf

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Cabbage gets overlooked a bit at the best of times. I know that we have a reputation for being a nation of meat and two vegetables, but the cabbage family deserves much more prominence on restaurant menus apart from just being boiled and served with a Sunday roast. We grow many varieties of cabbage in the UK, from white cabbage to glossy dark green Italian cavolo nero.

Many people think that white cabbage is grown and sold solely for the purposes of making coleslaw, but I've eaten fantastic curries made with white cabbage – it's cheap and cheerful stuff for sure, but it's well worth experimenting with. It's one of those vegetables that can absorb the flavours of so many ingredients. Bacon and shallots, for example, go particularly well with green or Savoy cabbage; or you could even try replacing the bacon with chopped smoked salmon trimmings. And in that classic dish, choucroute, which admittedly is not to everyone's taste, preserved cabbage is brilliantly matched with boiled and smoked meats and sausage.

Black cabbage with shallots

Serves 4

These days, we seem to be growing more and more Italian black cabbage in the UK. In Italy it's known as cavolo nero and it is quite a robust leaf; it takes a fair bit of cooking, but it is wonderful when added to soups and stews.

If you can find the little round flat Italian onions (cippolini), then they would be ideal for this dish, but otherwise you could substitute shallots or button onions instead.

250-350g shallots or small onions, peeled
2tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
500g black Italian cabbage, trimmed of any thick stalks and cut into 2-3cm chunks

A couple of good knobs of butter

Put the shallots in a pan with the olive oil, just cover with water and season; bring to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer gently for about 15-20 minutes or until the shallots are tender. Meanwhile, cook the black cabbage in boiling salted water until tender, then drain. Drain the shallots and toss in a pan with the cabbage and butter and season to taste.

Roast pork belly with Alsacienne cabbage

Serves 4

I often see white cabbages in my friends' fridges slowly going mouldy because they bought the cabbage to make coleslaw and weren't sure what to do with the rest of it. It makes a great accompaniment for pork, veal or poultry.

A piece of pork belly weighing about 1-1.2kg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the cabbage

1 large onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
2tsp cumin seeds
100g butter
250-300g white cabbage, very finely shredded
2tbsp white wine or cider vinegar
150ml chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp double cream (optional)

Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Place the pork belly in a roasting tray with the skin-side down and pour in about a centimetre of water. Place on a medium heat on the stove top and simmer for about 4-5 minutes, then remove the pork from the tray and pour the water away. This helps to crisp up the rind. Season the pork belly, return to the dry roasting tray and roast for about 1 hours, basting every so often. The skin should be crisp; if not, just increase the temperature of the oven or finish under a medium grill.

While the pork is cooking, make the cabbage. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and gently cook the onion and cumin seeds for 3-4 minutes with a lid on, stirring every so often. Add the cabbage and continue cooking with a lid on and stirring every so often for another 4-5 minutes. Add the vinegar and chicken stock, season and continue cooking for about another 10 minutes without a lid until the liquid has evaporated and the cabbage is tender. You can add the double cream at this stage if you wish and just continue cooking for a couple of minutes. To serve, slice the pork belly or leave it as a chunk, spoon the cabbage on to warmed plates or a serving dish and lay the pork on top.

Stuffed Savoy cabbage with lentils

Serves 4

This is a classic, hearty French peasant dish. The cabbage acts as a casing for the pork filling, which you can change according to your taste (using minced chicken and chicken livers, for example) or you could make it vegetarian with a filling of, say, chopped wild mushrooms, onions, herbs and breadcrumbs.

4 large outer leaves of Savoy cabbage
1 litre or enough hot beef or chicken stock to cover the stuffed cabbage

For the stuffing

400g fatty minced pork
100g pork livers, cleaned and minced or finely chopped
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp chopped thyme leaves
100g fresh white breadcrumbs
100ml double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce

100g Puy lentils, soaked for an hour or so in cold water

2-3 large shallots, peeled, halved and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 stick of celery, peeled if necessary and finely chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and finely chopped
A good knob of butter
tbsp plain flour
tsp tomato purée
10ml red wine
500ml beef stock

To make the stuffing, put the minced pork into a bowl with the pork livers, onion, garlic and thyme. Bring the cream to the boil and pour over the breadcrumbs. Leave to cool then mix with the pork mixture and season.

Meanwhile, cook the cabbage leaves in boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon into a bowl of cold water. Transfer to some kitchen paper and dry well. Remove the thick middle veins with a sharp knife, leaving the leaves intact. Lay the leaves on a board and spoon the pork mixture evenly between them. Fold the leaves into neat balls, then wrap a piece of clingfilm round each, gathering the ends up and twisting it into a tight ball. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

To make the sauce, drain the lentils and put them into a pan, covered with lightly salted boiling water. Simmer for 10 minutes and drain. Meanwhile, gently cook the shallot, garlic, celery and carrot in the butter for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add the flour and tomato purée, stir well, then gradually add the red wine and beef stock. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the lentils, check seasoning and continue to simmer for 15 minutes and keep warm.

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Remove the clingfilm from the cabbage and put it into an ovenproof dish. Cover with the hot stock, and cook with the lid on for about 30-40 minutes.

To serve, reheat the sauce, drain the stock from the cabbage, place the stuffed cabbage on a dish; pour the sauce around.

Hungarian potato and cabbage soup

Serves 4

Paprika is used a lot in Hungarian cooking, and used correctly it gives a slightly sweet, gently spiced warmth to a winter soup or stew. I've used chunks of bacon here but you could cook a ham hock first and make the soup from the stock and use pieces of hock itself in the soup.

1 large onion, peeled, halved, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
120g piece of smoked streaky bacon cut into cm chunks
2tsp paprika
A couple of good knobs of butter
2ltrs chicken or ham stock
400-500g waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm chunks
300-350g green or Savoy cabbage leaves, washed and cut into 2cm squares
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a thick-bottomed pan and gently cook the onion, garlic, bacon and paprika for 3-4 minutes with a lid on, stirring every so often. Add the stock, season and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the potatoes and cabbage and continue simmering until they are just cooked. Re-season if necessary and serve.

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