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30 January 2009 @ 05:37 pm
Cabbage is King  
A lean, flavorful green for lean times.
Julia Reed
Newsweek Web Exclusive

During those dreary first weeks of every new year, I can count on two things: I will be broke and I will be dieting. This year I am mildly heartened by the facts that pretty much everybody else in the world is also broke, and that Oprah, who is not, is on a diet. Oprah, of course, has her own nutrition and fitness guru, Bob Greene. I have cabbage soup.

Yes, it is the same diet you've seen for the last 20 years on web sites and in the pages of National Enquirer, touting its promise to take off up to 15 pounds in a single week. Its origins are spurious (the claim that it was developed by doctors at Seattle's Sacred Heart Hospital for obese heart patients turns out to be bogus), And its menu almost comical (on day four, as I write, I am allowed six bananas, eight glasses of skim milk, and the soup). But it works. I have yet to lose anything less than 10 pounds on the thing, and while I am perfectly aware that the loss is mostly water, I don't care. I invariably feel so virtuous that I keep going. Plus, I have developed an uncommon affection for cabbage, my annual savior.

This is good news, because in these dire economic times, cabbage, which averages about 49 cents a pound, is not a bad thing to love. I am a southerner, and like the Irish, who have their own historic relationship with cabbage, we have long known a few things about being poor and downtrodden. In the south, "smothered" cabbage (braised in bacon or salt pork) is a mainstay at the "meat-and-three" plate-lunch joints that still dot the landscape. There is even a popular chain restaurant—the aptly named Po Folks—at which cabbage is a vegetable choice every day.

But versions of the same dish can be found on the plates of far finer establishments. One of the signatures of the late Gilbert Lecoze, founding chef and owner at Manhattan's Michelin three-star Le Bernardin, was roast monkfish on a bed of savoy cabbage Braised In butter and bacon. the current chef, the insanely talented Eric Ripert, who now owns the restaurant with Lecoze's sister Maguy, still makes the dish when regulars ask for it—which, he says, is frequently. "It has great flavor, real ingredients. that's what people want now," Ripert tells me. "They are tired of the esoteric. It's, 'just give me the braised carrots, please, not the smell of them'."

Indeed, the folks who monitor this stuff—trend-spotters, marketers, et al—tell me that in 2009, exhausted diners will reject such show-off antics as the molecular gastronomy that Ripert refers to. They are ready for another round of comfort food and simple, straightforward cooking. "Intellectual 'head food' is done," says Tanya Steel, Editor of Epicurious.Com. "At the end of the day, people really want food they know and flavors they understand."

At Le Bernardin, Ripert has always adhered to that rule. you can't get more straightforward than, say, baked langoustine with lemon-seaweed butter from the "barely touched" section of his menu, or a whole red snapper baked in a rosemary-thyme salt crust. This may be why, even though Le Bernardin is one of the priciest restaurants in New York, 2007 was its strongest year ever, and the drop in sales since has been limited to the single digits. Ripert points out that fish is also the perfect diet food, but a few weeks ago he gave folks another reason to feel virtuous about eating in his restaurant. For every customer in 2009, Le Bernardin will donate $1 per diner to City Harvest, a "food rescue" organization that feeds more than 260,000 of New York's hungry each week. By year's end, the gift should total at least $100,000.

Ripert's own favorite offering on the current menu is halibut in a sea urchin mustard sauce with baby brussels sprouts for "earthiness and texture" (for the record, brussels sprouts are a cabbage). But when he craves more peasant-style food, he goes for cassoulet or fejoada feijoada, a brazilian black-bean dish invented by slaves, flavored with the tongue and organ meats discarded by their owners. Dried beans are another economical food choice; as it happens, they go well with cabbage. In the south, on New Year's Day, we eat black-eyed peas to bring us luck, accompanied by cabbage to bring us money. The great Jeremiah Tower offers savoy cabbage and white beans tossed with duxelles (finely chopped mushrooms sautéed in butter with shallots) in "Jeremiah Tower Cooks," and his cabbage slaw is a perfect accompaniment to his justifiably famous black-bean cake.

Since Lecoze's early brilliant pairing of the monkfish with cabbage, other chefs have followed suit. In the terrific New Chanterelle Cookbook, David Waltuck places salmon on a bed of cabbage in a divine grapefruit butter, and Patricia Wells, in her latest, "Vegetable Harvest," offers a slightly more virtuous version of the same dish with steamed cabbage tossed in just a bit of cream. When I am not on a diet, i braise my cabbage in Riesling with applewood-smoked bacon. It is good with or without fish.

Cabbage Braised With Riesling And Bacon
serves 4

1 cabbage (about 1 pound)
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
1 small carrot, peeled and diced
½ large stalk of celery, peeled and diced
1 small yellow onion, peeled and diced
4 ounces smoked bacon, sliced
¼-inch think, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
¾ cup slightly sweet riesling or gewurztraminer
2 teaspoons salt, freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or cider vinegar

Slice the cabbage in half, remove the core, and cut the cabbage into rough chunks about 1 inch wide. Warm the olive oil in a six-quart noncorroding casserole. Add the vegetables, bacon, thyme and wine and bring to a simmer. Put half the cabbage in the pot and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the salt and a little freshly ground pepper over the layer. Repeat with the remaining cabbage.

Cover the pot tightly and braise the cabbage slowly over low heat. After 20 minutes, stir the cabbage gently so that the leaves on top move to the bottom and the vegetables and bacon are mixed throughout. Replace the cover and cook another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cabbage is tender. Taste the cabbage and correct for salt and pepper if necessary. add the vinegar and toss well. the cabbage can be made several hours in advance, or while a roast is cooking, and warmed just before serving it.

Fried cabbage is my FAVOURITE. Cabbage and dumplings (halushki). Stuffed cabbage. Can anyone tell I'm Polish? Cabbage is a major food staple.