The revival of a humble vegetable
by Lydia Brownlow
I started my emergency Brexit food store in January 2020, stockpiling rice, olive oil and tinned tomatoes. But thanks to Covid and lockdown, along with a full house, it was annihilated in a very short period of time. Not to worry, it was the summer, everything was glorious and the veg patch was groaning with produce. My main concern was how to sneak another dish of courgettes past the family without them noticing. Now it is a frozen wasteland with a few weedy leeks and some not-sprouting purple sprouting broccoli and my food store’s minimal: just a few tins of baked beans.
Things are looking bleak. But it is not all doom and gloom; Brexit seems to have gone more smoothly than initially predicted, lorries are getting across the Channel, but I note some food prices are rising and there’s not quite the selection of fruit and veg that we are used to.
Is it just me, or are we going back to seasonal eating – just like in the good old days? We do get our weekly vegetable box that’s delivered to the house; all organic, delicious and plastic free. It’s a life-saver as, along with the rest of the nation, I am trying to limit the number of times I go to the supermarket. But the problem with going seasonal is that I’m constantly reminded of my childhood and the fact winter meant carrots, potatoes, cauliflowers, turnips and swedes. I can cope with all of these; I mean, who doesn’t like mashed up root vegetables with masses of butter and black pepper?
But we have been so spoilt in terms of choice in modern times. I love a high-cal mash twice a month, but not twice a week. And they are the vegetables that are relatively easy to incorporate in a meal. I haven’t even mentioned cabbages. They’re artfully displayed on my kitchen windowsill, like a Dutch still life, or photo on the front of a seed catalogue: red, white, Savoy and pointy to name a few. I do use them, but it’s no good, they are multiplying – not reducing in quantity. If only we were allowed to see friends, I could give them away as others gift boxes of chocolates.
Felicity Kendal was on Graham Norton’s chat show recently and they duly showed clips of her 1970s hit show The Good Life. This was as I pondered how to serve up the week’s cabbage offering and I was immediately transported back to when I was a child: tank tops, plimsolls, rattan furniture and my mother dishing up supper looking gorgeous, with bouffant hair, lipstick and a Laura Ashley dress. After two World Wars, people had become used to living frugally. This meant eating cheap food that was either boiled or stewed, and the resulting dishes were sapped of taste and visually unappealing.
Case in point, out came the Fray Bentos Pie, served with boiled potatoes and cabbage that had also been boiled to the point of murder, as though it could poison you unless all its nutrients were removed. And the cabbage smelt ghastly due to all the boiling. When cabbage is cooked the sulphur it contains multiplies. And the longer it’s cooked, the worse the odour – not something anyone seemed very aware of in the 1970s. It even got a mention at the beginning of George Orwell’s 1984 when Winston returned to his apartment block that smelt of “boiled cabbage and old rag mats.” If poor old cabbage wasn’t being cooked to death, then the alternative was boiled ham with coleslaw; in other words, a raw shredded cabbage with grated carrot, raisins and, on a good day, a packet of peanuts, all mixed up in a spoonful of mayonnaise thinned down with some milk. Mm!
Cabbage for cooks
Having had a good whinge at the expense of this magnificent vegetable, I’ll let Guy Singh-Watson (who founded Riverford Organic Farmers) put in a good word for it. Singh-Watson wrote recently: “Last year for the very first time the calls for more cabbages in the (veg) boxes outweighed the moans for less.” Things have moved on. No longer is it necessary to reduce cabbage to a grey sludge; it should be treated with the respect and love it deserves.
So why not join me in trying finely-shredded cabbage stir-fried over a high heat, with a good amount of freshly-grated ginger and garlic, plus a slug of soy sauce? Or, for coleslaw, use thinly-sliced red or white cabbage, tossed together with some apple, blue cheese and toasted pecans and served with a mustard dressing. But there’s also Asian style, with carrot, red pepper, beansprouts and mushrooms in a soy, ginger and chilli dressing, along with masses of coriander.
Cabbage leftovers? Combine them with equal amounts of mashed potato, stir together with lots of seasoning and some fried onion. Fry generous spoonfuls in a hot pan until golden and crispy. And what about confit? Cook an onion in a large pan with a splash of oil, add 100ml each of red wine vinegar, cranberry sauce and brown sugar, then bring to the boil and stir in 1⁄2 small red finely-shredded cabbage; cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes or until the cabbage is soft and the liquid a sticky sauce. Serve with roast duck or game. Delicious.
Lydia Brownlow was a cookery editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Latterly she has been inspiring children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com