Nigel Lawton gets friendly with a vege that’s an oldie but a goodie.

‘I’ve been rich. I’ve been poor. Rich is better.’ – Sophie Tucker.

My class feelings about food kicked in early. I remember once getting into a spot of bother in an Honours literature tutorial when I opined that I didn’t much like James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners. Their imaginative reek of dank tenement stairwells, working class struggle and boiled cabbage put me right off. Far more interesting, I continued rashly, were the doings of the aristos, who led considerably more interesting lives and up till then had basically produced much of the world’s good literature.

Even in the 1970s of course this was PC heresy. The dreaded movement hadn’t quite got going then, although it wasn’t far off, and my opinions attracted predictable outrage. I haven’t resiled from my opinion of Dubliners (Ulysses is another matter, being a masterpiece, and Finnegan’s Wake is simply unreadable) but I do concede that I was unfair to cabbage. It is a noble member of the brassica family, to which broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts also belong, and is extremely good for you.

Loaded with vitamin C, riboflavin and other vitamins, cabbages have been cultivated for their health-giving and even medicinal properties (in some folk treatments the leaves are used as poultices and anti-inflammatories) for at least 2,000 years. And because they are relatively disease- and pest-resistant and tolerate a wide range of climates, they’ve been embraced by cooks from Ireland (where cabbage is a key ingredient of that yummy mash, Colcannon) to China and India. They can be served fresh – thinly sliced and seasoned with mayonnaise to make coleslaw – or cooked and preserved (think: sauerkraut) in a huge variety of ways.

A true vegetable of the people, cabbage has sustained the European peasantry for centuries, and something of the esteem in which it is held is reflected in the French term of endearment, ‘my little cabbage’. Older French ladies will also call you ‘ma biche’, which does not mean what it sounds like but simply means a doe (a female deer). [Stop now! – Ed.] And remember the old wives’ tale about babies being found under a cabbage? It’s another clue about the importance of the vegetable as a mainstay of life.

Old and peasanty does not however equate to good in many minds, especially when Three colours of asparaguscabbage is badly cooked. And who can blame many of us for looking down on cabbage when our mothers covered it firmly with a lid and boiled it to a pulp? That is precisely the way to release the sulphurous-smelling mustard compounds which create its unique smell of lingering poverty.

Nowadays though, a combination of gradually improving cooking standards and the current recession are seeing more and more people reach a rapprochement with cabbage. I now cook it gladly, especially when you can often find a perfect head of cabbage for about $2.28. Cabbage has even become trendy of late, if you think about the current fad for its relative cavolo nero* (Tuscan Kale) – the idea of which makes Italian peasants giggle.

The following recipe, somewhat perversely, is based on simmering cabbage (uncovered, mind you!) for 30 minutes, but it’s good and tasty. It’s adapted from a recipe by Antonio Carluccio, whose focus on simplicity, uncomplicated ingredients and good flavour makes him, in my view, one of the maestros of vegetable cooking.

Cavolo con Speck

This recipe originally hails from northeastern Italy where there have long been Germanic influences from across the border. Strictly speaking it uses Speck, the cured, cold-smoked ham from the Tyrol, but because Speck is expensive I usually replace with it ham pieces that you can cheaply buy as off-cuts from your butcher or from the deli section of your supermarket. The other Germanic thing is the pickling-style use of the peppercorns and cloves and juniper berries etc in the cooking process.

Another tip: make sure you drain the cooking water before adding the ‘sauce’ of butter and onion and cider vinegar and flour to the cooked cabbage, otherwise the dish will be gluggy.

You will need:

1 whole cabbage (about 1kg), julienned (cut into fine strips)
2 onions, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, finely sliced (I always add more garlic)
2 fresh bay leaves (dried ones are OK as a substitute)
5 juniper berries
4 cloves
20 whole peppercorns.

For the sauce:
50g unsalted butter
100g Speck or ham pieces, cut into small cubes (add more ham if you prefer)
1 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tbsp plain flour
Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

In a stock pot, cover the cabbage with water (I use boiling water from the kettle to get the dish going fast) and add half the onion, the garlic, bay leaves, juniper berries, cloves, peppercorns and some salt. Cook uncovered on a moderate heat for approximately 30 minutes, by which time about half of the water will have evaporated.

Heat the butter in a frying pan and add the remaining onion and the speck/ham. Fry on a moderate heat until the onion is soft. Add the cider vinegar and flour and stir over a gentle heat for 2-3 minutes. Make sure the flour has been integrated into the sauce.

Drain the cabbage mixture through a colander and place it back in the stock pot. Add the sauce from the fry pan, mix well, add salt and pepper to taste and cook for 2-3 more minutes. This recipe is good as a side dish for roasted or boiled pork dishes or just on its own.

*Two simple but good ways to cook cavolo nero

1. Cut the cavolo nero into thin slices and sauté in extra virgin olive oil with finely chopped garlic to your taste. When wilted and softened (it takes a bit longer than spinach) mix through a sprinkling of capers.

2. Add cavolo nero to pasta. Blanch and drain several leaves of cavolo nero and add them to a hot fry pan of finely chopped garlic (amount to your taste), 1 finely chopped onion and 2-3 chopped chorizo, merguez or similar spicy sausages. Add to the drained pasta of your choice with a small amount of the pasta cooking water to keep the sauce moist. Sprinkle the pasta mixture with the zest of 1 lemon and grated parmesan or other strong cheese and serve.