Cooking cabbage for St Patrick's Day

Date:15-03-2014 08:58:07 read:1

Cooking cabbage for St Patrick's Day

Cabbage is sadly underrated, but keep the cooking time short and it's the most delicious way to celebrate St Patrick's Day

"When you lift the lid, the cabbage is as green as Irish moss and impregnated with salty butter." Photo: RUTHLEWISILLUSTRATIONS.COM

Watch out for a tinge of sulphur hanging in the air on Monday 17 March. All over the world thousands of panfuls of cabbage will be boiled, to be served with bacon or corned beef for St Patrick's Day celebrations.

"Few people" like the smell of cabbage cooking, according to the food writer Alan Davidson. Some say a bay leaf takes the smell away, but I find that it only masks it. Green cabbage is rich in volatile aromas – similar to those of mustard seeds – that become sulphurous on cooking. This must be the reason that, among the brassicas, it is so much less favoured than broccoli. On one occasion, when my daughter was invited to tea at a friend's house, the friend's mum joked, "We'll serve you cabbage!" – as if cabbage were a food of fairytale awfulness, like gruel.

But we love cabbage in our house: stir-fried with ginger and pork, raw with lemon juice and oil. What else can you buy for 80p these days that is as mysteriously beautiful as a savoy? Its pretty green layers are used as a motif on the up-market tea towels produced by Thornback & Peel, and Jane Grigson observes that the "dark wrinkled outer leaves look as if they were fresh from some porcelain factory". This delicacy of form is matched by a subtlety of flavour: yellow and nutty towards the core, with more bitterness in the outer leaves.

The late Rose Gray of The River Café prized these outer leaves as the most interesting in flavour, using them like cavolo nero in Italian soups, or shredded in risotto – an excellent plan. Despite the French-sounding name, savoy cabbage originated in Italy, where green cabbages have been enjoyed since Roman times. Renaissance Italian cooks simmered cabbage in meat broth and served it with herbs and parmesan. The parmesan picks up a natural savouriness in the cabbage itself.

But the simplest way to cook cabbage is the Irish way: with water, butter and salt. If you fear the smell, it's worth knowing that the most pungent odours only develop with long cooking. As the food-science guru Harold McGee points out, "The amount of hydrogen sulphide produced in boiled cabbage doubles in the fifth through the seventh minute of cooking." The answer? Never boil cabbage for as long as seven minutes, not to mention the 20 minutes that old recipes recommend.

Better still is to borrow Darina Allen's technique from Irish Traditional Cooking (Kyle Books, £25). Bring a couple of tablespoons of water to the boil with the same quantity of butter and a pinch of salt, then cook the shredded savoy in this mixture – lid on – for just a couple of minutes. When you lift the lid, the cabbage is as green as Irish moss and impregnated with salty butter.

If there is any left over, the obvious next step is colcannon, aka Irish bubble and squeak: cabbage, mashed potato and fried onion, formed into a cake and fried until brown and crisp, preferably in a cast-iron pan. This is what we'll be having on St Patrick's Day, with poached eggs. The dish never fails to console. And here's a puzzle: while boiled cabbage is one of the worst smells in the kitchen, colcannon is one of the very best.

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