There are certain things in life which are simply, utterly impossible. Finding a politician who enjoys the trust and confidence of the public. Enjoying a movie which stars Tom Cruise. meeting someone who has a good word to say about cabbage.
Not only is it impossible to find someone who will stand up and testify as to the good character of the cabbage, it's practically impossible to prevent folk from delivering a broadside against the much maligned vegetable the instant its name is mentioned in polite company.
Just look at the weight which John Ayto gets off his chest in his marvellous book, The Dinner's Dictionary: "The cabbage, object of fear and loathing at the dinner table, forced down the unwilling throats of centuries of children because it is `good for you', its cooking smells infiltrating every corner of the house (or institution), has a lot to live down in Britain, the land of the overcooked vegetable. William Connor (Cassandra of the Daily Mirror) summed it up in 1950: `Boiled cabbage 'a l'Anglaise is something compared with which steamed coarse newsprint bought from bankrupt Finnish salvage dealers and heated over smoky oil stoves is an exquisite delicacy.'".
Blimey! What did cabbage ever do to merit that? Well, the obvious suspect in this culinary fit up is, of course, that smell. The odour of overcooked cabbage is something compared with which rotten fish heads stir-fried with musty garlic and 100-year Chinese eggs is exquisitely odorous.
The stink occurs from simple reason: when you cook cabbage, the mustard oils and cysteine derivatives amongst its volatile components break down to form odiferous compounds, including hydrogen sulfide, the typical smell of rotten eggs. but the real monstrousness of cabbage's cussed nature is not ust the stink, but the fact that the more you cook it, the more the stench increases. the amount of hydrogen sulfide produced in boiled cabbage actually doubles between the fifth and seventh minute of cooking.
Doubles! In two minutes! Talk about cooking up the stink! To me, a lover of cabbage, this tells us an important lesson. It says that cabbage hates being overcooked, indeed demands to be effectively undercooked. And it also says that cabbage hates water. Boil me at your peril, is what the scrunchy head of vegetable is saying to us.
Boil me, and overcook me, and I will make you pay for it!
So what should we do? Well, just try this simple thing. Get a nice young spring cabbage, slice it thin, thin, thin, and then , in a pan, stir-fry it in a little oil. As it wilts, cover the pan and let it cook in its own steam. In a few minutes, it is ready. Season with sea salt, a hint of fresh black pepper, some freshly grated nutmeg, and let a big whack of butter drool all over it as you carry the steaming dish to the table. Crispy, crunchy, clean-tasting, you will find yourself asking: if this is cabbage, then what is everyone else cooking?
Our habit of cooking cabbage in the water in which we have cooked our hocks of ham has blinded us to its virtues. As the great Californian restaurateur Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, writes, "Because it can provide food in the winter when there may be few other vegetables to be had, and because it can be grown in most of the temperate climate zones of the world, cabbage has developed a reputation as a commonplace, even coarse, food. But it is worthy of the most refined preparations. At the restaurant we serve it with foie gras and caviar. Its sweetness complements the richness of duck and pork. It is surprisingly good with fish, wrapped around salmon and steamed, for example, trapping juices and flavour. Braised, steamed or stir-fried, it is a treat by itself. fermented and transformed into sauerkraut, it is a new vegetable altogether".
It is, indeed, amazingly good with fish, especially salmon Ms Waters points out, but did you know that it is perfectly brilliant on pizza? Bernadette O'Shea, the mastermind of Sligo4s Truffles Restaurant, serves it as part of pizza topping which includes Parma ham, cream cheese, mozzarella, parmesan, cream, pine nuts, nutmeg and a splash of truffle oil. It is magnificent, a pizza to die for.
So, the next time a dinner of ham and cabbage is reckoned and beckons, keep the bright green leaves away from the salty ham water, cook them quickly and gently, and see how the classic Irish staple can be transformed, can be made anew.