Turn over a new leaf

Cabbage has moved on since you were force-fed the stuff in the school canteen. Mark Hix eats his greens
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Indy Lifestyle Online

For some people the memory of smelly cabbage is too much. They've never recovered from that terrible reek associated with the school canteen. And it's true that of all the overcooked vegetables, cabbage must be the least appealing. Well, it's time to get over it and wake up to a different smell - cabbage isn't like that any more. In fact it needn't even be called cabbage.

For some people the memory of smelly cabbage is too much. They've never recovered from that terrible reek associated with the school canteen. And it's true that of all the overcooked vegetables, cabbage must be the least appealing. Well, it's time to get over it and wake up to a different smell - cabbage isn't like that any more. In fact it needn't even be called cabbage.

Savoy, cavolo nero or pak choi are the words to conjure with now, and all they need is quick cooking and simple preparation. Briefly steamed or boiled and tossed in butter with some finely chopped streaky bacon and shallots - that's the way to go with cabbage. Or rediscover traditional dishes like choucroute - white cabbage cooked in the juices of delicious pieces of pork and smoky sausages. As far as I'm concerned, the red herring of cabbages must be the mauve variety. I should be careful when I say that I don't think red cabbage is good for much except serving with game or pickled to go with Lancashire hot pot. I got a right ticking off - a nice one, mind you - and some new recipe tips from a reader, Mrs B, the other week after I had dismissed the redcurrant as not useful for much.

But anyway, this week it's green cabbage only until someone can convert me to red.

Lemongrass-skewered scallops with pak choi

Serves 4

Chinese greens such as pak choi, choi sum, mustard greens and Chinese cabbages are easier to come by than they used to be. In fact they're beginning to rival our native cabbages in popularity. And it's easy to see why. Simply stir-fried with some ginger, spring onions and with a dash of soy sauce added at the end, these greens are unrecognisable as the kind of boiled cabbage many of us grew up on. You can pretty much use all of the leaves, and there's no boiling required. I've noticed some at pick-your-own farms, and you can grow your own from seeds, available from most garden centres.

2 sticks of lemongrass, halved lengthways
16 or 20 medium-sized scallops, coral removed
250g Chinese greens
Bunch of spring onions, trimmed and sliced into 4 on the angle
A small piece of root ginger, scraped and shredded
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2tbsp sesame oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the black-bean sauce

2tbsp Chinese fermented black beans, soaked in warm water for an hour, then drained
1tbsp chopped coriander
1tbsp rice wine
1tbsp light soy sauce
1tbsp groundnut or sunflower oil

First make the black-bean sauce by mixing all the ingredients together. Carefully skewer the scallops on to the lemongrass sticks and season. Prepare the Chinese greens by cutting any roots off, but leaving the white stems on. Cut them into evenly sized pieces, say about 3-4cm lengths, or just in half if they are small. In a large wok or non-stick frying pan, heat the sesame oil and fry the Chinese greens with the spring onions, ginger and garlic for 3-4 minutes until they are wilted, stirring every so often.

Meanwhile heat a griddle pan or large frying pan until almost smoking. Lightly oil the scallops and cook them for about 2 minutes on each side. Arrange the greens on warmed serving plates, lay the skewered scallops on top and spoon over the dressing. If you want to make it more substantial, serve with rice.

Stuffed Savoy cabbage with braised lentils

Serves 4

A classic, hearty French peasant dish that's something of a rarity these days. Here 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 make completely 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 (or a couple of good stock cubes dissolved in hot water)

for the sauce

100g Puy lentils, soaked for an hour or so in cold water
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 small leek, finely chopped and washed
1 small carrot, peeled and finely chopped
A good knob of butter
1/2tsp tomato purée
3tsp flour
50ml red wine
500ml beef stock

for the stuffing

400g fatty minced pork
100g chicken or 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
A good pinch of ground mace

Put the minced pork into a bowl with the chicken 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 mace, and season.

Meanwhile cook the cabbage leaves in boiling salted water for 3-4 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.

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 onion, garlic, leek and carrot in the butter for 2-3 minutes until soft.

Add the tomato purée and flour, 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 before putting to one side.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/Gas mark 6. Remove the clingfilm from the cabbage and put them into an ovenproof dish. Cover with the hot stock, and cook with the lid on for 45 minutes.

To serve, reheat the sauce, drain the stock from the cabbage, place the stuffed cabbage on a dish and pour the sauce around. If you're having it as a main course, serve with mash.

Choucroute Alsacienne

Serves 4-6

I used to hate the French dish choucroute, or sauerkraut as it's called in Germany. However, over the years I have finally come round to it and discovered that it's best when you adjust the flavours to suit your taste, and you don't go overboard on the quantity. I think the trouble was that whenever I'd tried it before, the cabbage was so heavily salted, and it was always served in ridiculous amounts. I expect in Alsace and Germany it still is. Even some Parisian brasseries serve it in joke quantities.

Choucroute is traditionally served with pork, and there's so much scope for matching it with some of the great sausages and bacon now available. Smoky Black Forest ham and great smoked and boiling sausages are sold by the German Wurst and Delicatessen at Borough Market and at their shop in Central Street, London EC1 (020-7250 1322) along with lots more sausages and hams and even jars of cabbage so you can make your own bespoke choucroute. Smoked ham and boiling sausages, though not necessarily the real thing from Germany or Alsace, are sold in supermarkets, too.

700-800g smoked streaky pork or a piece of smoked pancetta with the rind left on
500g kassler (smoked loin of pork) or a piece of smoked back bacon with the rind left on
4 medium-sized meaty smoked sausages
4 meaty sausages, such as Toulouse
2 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1tbsp vegetable oil
1tsp caraway seeds
1tsp black mustard seeds
1 bay leaf
6 juniper berries

for the cabbage

1 small head of white cabbage weighing about a kilo or less
2 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1tbsp vegetable oil
1tsp caraway seeds
1tsp black mustard seeds
1 bay leaf
6 juniper berries
100ml white wine
50ml white wine vinegar
1 medium potato, peeled and grated

Cut the smoked streaky pork (and smoked back bacon, if you are using it) into rough 4cm chunks, put in a bowl of water and leave overnight in the fridge. (You don't have to do this to pancetta or kassler.) The next day wash the meat under the cold tap for about 5 minutes, then transfer to a large saucepan (the pancetta can be added now if you are using it) and cover with water. Add the onions, juniper, caraway and mustard seeds along with the bay leaf. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 2 hours or until the meat is tender. The water may need topping up every so often.

Add the sausages (and kassler if you are using it) and continue to simmer for another 30 minutes. Remove the pieces of meat and sausages and strain the liquid through a fine-meshed sieve. Pour about 1/3 of the liquid back over the meats to reheat them later.

Start on the cabbage by trimming any discoloured outer leaves and cutting it into four. Cut out the root with a heavy knife and finely shred the leaves. Gently cook the onions in the vegetable oil in a thick-bottomed pan for 4-5 minutes with the caraway, mustard seeds, bay and juniper, until soft. Add the white wine, vinegar, potato and cabbage and the strained liquid the meat was cooked in.

Bring to the boil, stirring occasionally, then cover with a lid and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring every so often. There shouldn't be much liquid left, just some natural, slightly thickened cooking liquid. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary.

To serve, reheat the meats in the cooking liquid, transfer the cabbage to a large serving dish and spoon the meats over it. Serve with some good strong mustard and drink beer.

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