Stuffed – you, me & cabbages

by Ailbhe on January 11, 2017

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Well, I’d wish you a Happy New Year if I wasn’t so aware that it might be taken as ironic. Brexit. Trump. Syria. Isis. NHS. Strikes. You name it, we, laydees ‘n gen’lemen, seem to be well and truly stuffed and it’s less than 2 weeks into 2017. Testing times ahead.

However, life goes on, which always seems amazing, and others elsewhere have it worse. I’ve decided this is the year to be more engaged in politics, not to just hit a ‘Like’ button or sign an online petition but to join up, put the coat on, be active, march even! We often get the community we are willing to put up with and now’s not the time to put up with mean souls and greed. More of this I suspect at a later date.

In the meantime here in London winter has begun to dig in. We’ve had a few very cold days (not too much rain which is fine by me) and the next few days temperatures are due to drop. We may even get some snow (“Oh, great…” you say “…mix snow with rail and tube strikes and it’ll be a whole heap of fun for us – not”. Sorry). Anyway I thought this comforting, economic, very very tasty dish (yes, yes, ‘tasty’ – I know that’s subjective but hey!) might be the thing to make this weekend. Stuff it, let it simmer away as you catch up with Netflix or iPlayer or read last week’s Sunday paper (please tell me I’m not the only one with out-of-date newspapers piling up to be read), whatever. This dish has been on my mind for, well, decades. Seriously. I can’t remember the name of the cookbook in which I first read about it but I know I was in my twenties when I did. Which now I’m most definitely not! It seemed such an honest dish, very french, very make-something-delicious-with-basic-ingredients. Then a year or so ago, when in Paris, at Café des Musées to be exact, we had ordered lunch from the Prix Fixe (delicious I should add) and as we waited the man seated at the table ahead of us had a steaming bowl of a cabbagy wedge brought to him and the aroma was AMAZING as it was carried past us. It wasn’t on the menu – I did check – and he seemed very familiar with the staff so I reckoned he was a regular and was privy to a special ‘regulars’ menu. I resolved then to make it soon – of course it took me almost 2 years to do that but…  c’est la vie.

So, “Chou Farci’ i.e. stuffed cabbage. Not stuffed cabbage rolls which I do make fairly often (mostly with the kale I grow in place of cabbage*) nor meat and cabbage leaves ‘layered up like cake’ but a whole cabbage, leaves gently prised apart and stuffed. Gorgeous.

Chou Farci

Serves 4 – 6

Disclaimer:
I tidied my studio this week, new year start, getting my house in order, that kinda thing and my final version of this recipe is somewhere but for the love of me I can’t find it. Typical. Anyway I do have my pre-cooking notes so I know what I was planning to do, my memory is not so bad (debatable) and this recipe really is a guide recipe. You don’t like caraway? Don’t use it, substitute it with something you do like. You don’t have brandy? A glug of sherry will do instead, or nothing (maybe not nothing, add another dash of Worcestershire sauce – add flavour baby) but you get my drift. This is a peasant dish and no self-respecting peasant had time to nip to Sainsbury’s to pick up something they needed, just tweak it. Oh and don’t go all new year fat hating freakiness by buying the leanest mince, you need some fat to keep the stuffing moist and succulent. Trust me.

ingredients

1 large Savoy cabbage (firm and fresh) rinsed clean but left intact
150g pork mince  (min. 10% fat)
150g beef mince (min. 10% fat)
a couple of trimmed chicken livers (optional – adds a creaminess but not a huge amount of flavour)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 onion, finely diced
125g mushrooms, chopped
a generous handful of parsley, chop finely
3 tbsp breadcrumbs,
1 egg
a few sprigs of thyme (1 tsp chopped)
Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp dried porcini, chopped (optional)
3/4 tsp caraway seeds (heat in a dry pan, then grind)
salt & pepper
500ml stock of choice (cube, pot, sachet, homemade – whatever you have)
water
brandy (or sherry or wine or naught)
butter
olive oil
a ball of kitchen string or large muslin square
a large pot
a bowl that the cabbage fits into

Tomato Sauce
1 tin chopped tomatoes (use the best you have)
1 shallot, diced (or use 1/2 an onion)
2 cm fresh ginger, grated – I love ginger but if you don’t…
1/2 tsp ground cumin
a pinch of ground chilli (or dash of tabasco or…)
salt & pepper
sugar (if tomatoes are lacking in sweetness add a pinch of sugar)
olive oil

method

Remove a few outer leaves from the cabbage and put to one side. Turn the cabbage over, base up and hollow out a cone shape in the stem just to aid cooking.

Bring a large pot of salted water (that will accommodate the cabbage) to the boil and gently lower the whole cabbage in. Cook at a simmer for about 20 mins when the cabbage should be just starting to be tender. Remove the cabbage, plunge into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking, then drain. Add the reserved cabbage leaves to the simmering pot and blanch for 5 minutes. Remove and drain them also.

Melt a knob of butter in a pan, fry the mushrooms and reserve, allowing to cool. I did this as I wanted the added flavour from cooked mushrooms but you don’t need to do this if you want to save on time.

In a bowl mix (clean hands are the best mixers) the meat, veg, herbs, egg, breadcrumbs, dried porcini (if using – I have porcini most of the time in my cupboards*), cooked mushrooms, caraway, a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce, a glug of brandy, generous pinch of pepper, salt and chicken livers (if using). Squish, squish, mix.

Now for the fun part. The Stuff.

Take the bowl that the whole cabbage will fit into and either line it with the muslin square with the edges hanging over OR cut 3 lengths of string approx 30 cm each (long enough so each string could tie around the cabbage easily). Lay the strings out, side by side, pick them up at the centre and knot them together there. Now place the knot at the bottom of the bowl, hang the string over the edge at regular intervals to make a spider-ish shape.

Place the drained, cooled cabbage in the bowl, base down and gently ease the leaves apart to open it out. Like a blooming rose. The centre leaves will be less cooked and in fact maybe not at all. Using a scissors nip out the centre, chop up those little light green cabbage leaves and add them to the stuffing.

Starting at the centre, add tablespoons of stuffing, closing in all the leaves as you do, till you end up with the cabbage stuffed and fat. It’s fairly easy to do but it’ll by no means look like a perfect round cabbage. Top with the reserved leaves and then secure with muslin or the string into a squashed cabbage shape.

Place the stuffed cabbage in a large pot and add the stock to just cover it (add more water if needed). Bring to the boil, cover and very gently simmer for 1.5 hrs. Lift the cabbage out, untie, cut into wedges and serve not forgetting to reserve the stock for dribbling over the wedges.

I also served my stuffed cabbage with a spicy tomato sauce:
sauté the shallot in a splash of olive oil in a small saucepan, add the spices then quickly add the tomatoes. Simmer for 10 minutes, taste and season adding sugar if needed. Blitz smooth (optional).

Alternatively a mustard béchamel sauce would be delicious too. Later I thought that adding some of those vacuum-packed chestnuts into the stuffing mix would add more depth of flavour. However this dish was sooo comforting as it is here.

Now all you need is some soft, hot, buttery mashed potato to plop with it. Enjoy.

*smug alert

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