Food & Drink: Tasty, mon petit chou]

It is unremarkable that restaurants should be snobbish. They are, after all, a contrast to home; they have, even in these hectic days, a certain formality; they distance us from the actual dirty business of cooking; they employ chefs whose business is to surprise us.

Many cookery books are no different, and only the very good ones consolidate in their pages the much more vigorous and enduring tradition of good home cooking.

I bring this up because my wife is, in proper French style, suddenly enamoured of frugality. It has struck her that there is an area in our economic life about which we never think twice: food. If we cook, we buy whatever we want. As a result of this new fervour, she has been producing cabbage dishes of all kinds.

Cabbage has mass, so it feeds you amply; it has flavour, if not mishandled; it is adaptable; it is always available; and it goes well with most sorts of foods, though best of all with pork and pork products.

But my wife has come up against a few obstacles: mainly that cabbage - apart from the great Alsace choucroute, or sauerkraut - is not a vegetable in vogue among the chic. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is rather plebeian.

Cabbage comes in many kinds: from the common, the red and the Savoy to such exotica as the Chinese varieties or the increasingly available bok choi. And there are many versions of each of these, though intense cultivation through the centuries has succeeded in reducing variations and making it more uniform, broader-leaved and more compact.

In cooking, all cabbages share certain characteristics. It is not a plant to be hurried; one does not hurl it into pan or pot and a few minutes later produce something delicious. No, it requires patience. Being composed mainly of water, it does not lend itself to boiling, save in soups and stews. Highly flavourful when raw, it loses that flavour in cooking. And yet it requires time. A paradox? Yes - and, also yes, an undercooked cabbage will stay with you longer than you will want.

My wife's first attempt, cabbage in breadcrumbs (a Russian recipe in which the cabbage is cooked for half an hour, then cut into sections, rolled in egg, crumbed, and sauteed in butter), was not a great success. She had forgotten to core the cabbage with sufficient violence (an uncooked core is no pleasant thing), and the result, when edible, was bland. The solution is: core thoroughly and add flavour (in the form of herbs, anchovies, bacon, vinegar, etc) to the batter or in the cooking.

We were luckier with our bok choi. These I cooked in an open pan in a rich beef stock with a little marsala, a touch of rice-wine vinegar, a teaspoon of soy and some chopped parsley, allowing it to simmer, covered, on a low heat until properly wilted (about a half-hour).

A traditional way of using cabbage is to stuff its leaves. Countless fillings come to mind, but the technique is nearly invariable. The easy way to get the leaves is to freeze a head of cabbage, let it thaw the day before, blanch it for a few minutes in boiling water and remove them. Alternatively, retrieve leaves from the outside in as it cooks in boiling water. They are stuffed (with leftover rice, raisins, chopped walnuts, olive, and lemon juice, if you would be Armenian; with pork and bacon or boiled chestnuts if you fancy eastern France; or with cream, apple, and forcemeat if you are more Norman) from the thick end, rolled up and laid in a casserole, seam-side down.

In Italy, red cabbage is called testa di negro. You find it stewed up north. ('But you said one shouldn't stew cabbage.' 'Right, not in water.') For this dish the cabbage is cut in four, cored and finely shredded. In a solid casserole, melt pork fat in which you will slowly brown cabbage, onion, cored apples, salt, a little brown sugar and some ground allspice. This you do a little at a time until you have filled the casserole. Now add a tablespoon of goose fat, some red wine and a tablespoon of wine vinegar. Cover and simmer at length, turning. I once had this with quail poached within the mixture, and utterly delicious it was.

Finally, let me commend Kohlklosse, or cabbage dumplings, the sort of rich winter dish you might eat in Thuringia. Cook a small white cabbage in salt water for about three-quarters of an hour, drain thoroughly and chop. Saute a fine-chopped onion in ample butter, add cabbage and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring. Remove cabbage and allow to cool.

Mix in yolks of four eggs and about an eighth of a pint of sour cream, then add flour and breadcrumbs (in equal proportions) until the mixture is firm but still kneadable. Season with fresh grated nutmeg, salt and pepper, beat the whites of the eggs until stiff and then fold in. Make the dough into egg-sized dumplings and cook on a slow, steady heat in salt water for 10 to 15 minutes.

Delicious and very frugal. Nay, cheap. Unsnobbish.

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