Often when reading a novel, I will find that if the author wants to indicate the smell of poverty, they will mention the smell of cooked cabbage. Like, “The stairway in the tenement smelled of used diapers, cooked cabbage, and despair.”
That’s no reflection on the cabbage, however, as cabbage is no respecter of persons, is filled with vitamins, and will keep in your fridge (or in your cellar) for damn near forever. No, in addition to all the virtues of cabbage, it is also usually inexpensive, which makes it the butt of jokes rather than be celebrated for the heroic vegetable it is, serving to fill in around the edges when the more respected fare is hard to come by.
As a young boy, I ate my share of cooked cabbage, but sadly, I never had any cooked cabbage that tasted good until I was grown. My people tended to, when in doubt, just boil a thing until it surrendered when some things benefit most by gentle encouragement instead of a full-on assault. They would make up for this by pouring the potlikker in the bottom of the pot – the vitamin laden broth left after the cabbage had been eaten – over cornbread, which was always the best part of the meal, the cabbage having been cooked until it dissolved, like the dreams we had of a meal with texture.
But done right, stewed cabbage is a delight, and there is virtually no likker to be had because we didn’t soak away all the vitamins. If it’s a weeknight and you don’t know what to use for a side dish, this is perfect. It takes about 25 minutes, from start to back, and if you add some bacon, you can make it a main dish instead. I think it’s even good enough to serve as a side at a celebration, like Thanksgiving.
If stewed cabbage is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
What you will need for this are a head of white (as opposed to red) cabbage, a big skillet, three tablespoons of some cooking fat – bacon grease is traditional, but butter is OK too, and I like to mix them both, half and half, each bringing qualities of which the other is shy – some salt, some sugar, and some water.
Turn the heat on medium under your skillet, and put your fat in it to melt. I’m going to assume you paid attention and are using one and a half tablespoons each of both butter and bacon grease, but you do you. Unless you doing you involves olive oil, in which case, just … no. There are things for which olive oil is wonderful, but this is not one of them.
While your fat’s melting, quarter your head of cabbage, cut out the stem, and then cut the rest of it into “steaks”, top to bottom (like, from pole to pole of the cabbage head) about an inch and a half thick. Then cut the steaks into chunks about 2×2, and then put the chunks in the hot fat. Don’t shred your cabbage – this ain’t slaw. You want chunks. It may fall apart a bit, which is fine, but don’t encourage it any. I mean, you fall apart, and we do you the kindness of not mentioning it, so return the favor here.
Sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt over the top of the cabbage chunks. You want to give the cabbage a minute or two in the hot fat, so the leaves will begin to brown and caramelize – take your spatula and move it about a bit to keep it from sticking. When you see edges beginning to brown slightly, add a cup of water (slowly), and then allow the water to cook down over medium heat until the water is mostly gone, the house smells amazing, and the cabbage is tender when you stab it, but the chunks are still mostly intact – which on my stove takes about 20 minutes.
Some of you will want to cook this longer. I understand this, but you’re wrong. It won’t be improved by turning it into mush. I am in favor, however, of starting this dish by frying up three slices of bacon, then dicing the cooked bacon into bits, and using that bacon grease plus another tablespoon or two of butter as the fat and then proceed from there, using the bacon bits as a garnish when you are done.
Some of you will think this can be improved by reducing the fat down to only one tablespoon, making it less fattening. It may be less fattening that way, but it won’t taste better. And in all honesty, two tablespoons of butter has 200 calories, which when divided by the four serving this makes, means you saved 50 calories a serving, but managed to turn something delicious into something your kids will make fun of you for making.