A multilayered and warming dish based on the mountain soup-stews of eastern Piedmont
After Christmas and new year, and three large batches of braised red cabbage, a disproportionate amount of which – due to greed and responsibility – I ate, I swore never to cook or eat red cabbage again. How quickly I forget. A month later and I am in the supermarket, quite literally weighing up two bald heads of cabbage, deep purple and polished, each with a bulging vein-like rib curving down one side. It is a cliche I know, but nevertheless true, that many Italians – especially those over 50 from Rome and southwards – find it impossible not to comment on young children, damp hair and food shopping, especially if you are standing with hands like a weighing scale looking indecisive.
“Questo” (“that one”), said a smart 50-something man in a green puffy gilet and jaunty scarf, choosing carrots as if something of upmost importance depended on it. He then went on to tell me he couldn’t eat red cabbage because it gave him terrible and painful wind, and that cooking it makes the house smell.Advertisement
“We missed the last train, and couldn’t find a cab, and of course Mr Davidson, who thought he knew everything, wandered down the wrong street, and we were suddenly overcome by a ghastly odour,” Mrs Davidson tells MFK Fisher, who recounts the story in her essay The Social Status of a Vegetable. “A dreadful odour,” Mrs D continues, “so terrible that I was almost swooning. I pressed my muff against my face, and we stumbled on, gasping … it was cabbage cooking.”
Considering that Mrs Davidson was already old and stiff when Fisher wrote in the 1930s, there is no danger of her wandering under my window. Good job too, because if she did, or the man in the green gilet does, there is a high probability they would get a noseful of cabbage, from either the tavola calda underneath my flat, the trattoria beside it, or our stove. I have long since given up worrying. I just add to the general waves of sulphur that are as much a part of Rome as cobblestones, mustard-yellow buildings and football-related graffiti.
Before we get to the cooking, though, there is a way to eat cabbage without the pong: don’t cook it. As well as being the Dorian Gray of the vegetable drawer, seemingly immune to the ravages of ageing, red cabbage is also a vegetable of extremes: don’t cook it, or cook it a lot – there is nothing in between.
Having chosen – with help – a cabbage, I decided it would be both nothing and all. Half became a salad, with fennel, carrot and apple, all chopped as thinly as paper pushed through a shredder, then tossed with mandarin juice, lemon olive oil and caper dressing. A decisive and bright slaw served at once, and different but good the next day when it is a carefree slump.
The second half became soup – the inspiration for which came from Marcella Hazan and an Italian writer called Martino Ragusa, and from the mountain soups from Novara, the easternmost province of Piedmont. These are soups that are “all” in every sense of the word – not just for the long cooking of the cabbage, which renders it soft, sweet-savoury and full of flavour, but also in terms of ingredients and multiple layers. Some recipes suggest the addition of pork rind and hock, cabbage and beef stock, sausages, beans, and three days of cooking. My version is tamer, although still burly: a diced onion and 50g of pancetta cooked in olive oil, half a shredded cabbage added, along with a glass of red wine, a tin of plum tomatoes and a litre of water or stock. Low and slow, the soup needs two hours, and in the last 15 minutes you add two tins of beans – one puréed, one whole – and three sausages you have crumbled and fried in a separate pan. Finish the deep-purple, spoon-supporting soup with a sprig of rosemary and few sage leaves fried in olive oil – just tip it in.
As with the endless braised red cabbage of Christmas, this soup is unquestionably better the next day – ideally a cold and hungry day, when it seems the most satisfying thing in the world, soul-staying, mountain-conquering and so madly, deeply purple. If you are worried about it discolouring, add a spoonful of vinegar, which works well against the other flavours.
If you are worried about smells or wind, both of which play a much more significant role in food, and therefore life, than food writers usually care to mention, maybe the salad is a better bet.
Red cabbage, sausage and white bean soup
Prep 10 min
Cook 2 hr
50g pancetta, diced
4 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
Half a medium red cabbage,shredded
1 glass red wine
1 tin plum tomatoes, chopped
1 litre water or pork stock
3 pork sausages
2 tins cannellini beans, drained
Salt and black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 sprig rosemary
5 sage leaves
In a large, heavy-based pan, fry the pancetta in the olive oil. After a minute or so, add the onion, and celery and fry until the onion is translucent.
Add the garlic and cook for a minute, then add the red cabbage and stir until it glistens with oil. Raise the heat a bit, add the wine, then, after a few minutes, the tomatoes and water.
Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for two hours.
In the last 20 minutes, remove the casing from the sausage, crumble the meat into a frying pan, and fry until browned – about five minutes.
Once brown, add to the meat to the soup, along with the beans – purée half the beans if you wish. Simmer for the final 15 minutes, adding salt and pepper as needed. If you like, finish by frying the rosemary and sage in some olive oil and adding these to the soup.