Vera Lynn got it all wrong. She sang that bluebirds would be flying over the white cliffs of Dover and in fact there’s not a one to be found - bluebirds live in America. What you do find around Dover are cabbages, by the bushel-barrel sackful.
These are the wild cabbages from which all our modern-day brassicas have descended. If she’d changed it to ‘cabbages sprouting over the white cliffs’ she would have been more biologically accurate.
Kale, brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflowers – all of these originated from the wild cabbage growing on England’s coastal cliffs.
South America gave us tomatoes, the Mediterranean rosemary and Asia eggplants and basil. England has given us cabbage and made us boil it ever since.
Well, in the interests of being accurate, my mother was the main cabbage boiler in our household. She used to boil the stuffing out of most things but was particularly vigilant on brassicas. My father, too, was in on the act, and did horrid things to potato which involved simmering pots of the things until they disintegrated. It must run in my family, because my older brother still does it – only he has raised it to new levels by boiling lettuce.
I myself have been guiltily, especially after a long day out chopping wood and painting the house. Fry a piece of meat, boil everything else. Sometimes, it can be the only option, but I always feel a bit disheartened by such fare.
No vegetable deserves to be treated in this way. I now believe there is a place in this world for cabbage. It’s just not dumped in salted water and boiled within an inch of its life.
The following is a truly warming and tasty dish, and it looks spectacular laid out on a large platter, with mashed potato and tomato sauce all around. Something a bit different, it’s excellent to serve guests on these increasingly chilly evenings. Be aware that you will be eating coleslaw for some days to come, however.
Baked cabbage with herbs
- 1 cabbage
- olive oil
- 700g mince
- 1 large onion, diced
- handful of capers
- a handful of fresh oregano and parsley, chopped
- Parmesan cheese, grated
- 1 cup wine
- salt, pepper
- 1 red pepper, diced
- 1 carrot, sliced
- 1 tin tomatoes
- 1 onion, chopped
- ½ cup beef stock
- salt, pepper
Preheat oven to 180ºC
Using a small, sharp knife cut out a square hole around where the stalk is. Score out the inside of the cabbage using the same knife, and some persistence. You want to create a deep pocket. As you work deeper, a sharp-edged spoon is useful to scoop out cabbage fragments, and it does get easier. Leave about one inch of the cabbage remaining around the sides. Retain the shredded cabbage and outer leaves.
Heat oil in a skillet and fry onion until golden. Remove, and fry mince with the herbs, about 10 minutes. Add the onion and capers. Season.
Spoon this into the cavity in the cabbage, push it down to compress. Pour in the wine and then cover with a large outer leaf. Tie with string and place in a large pot, cavity side up, with about half a cup of water (this prevents it from burning.)
Making the sauce:
Fry onion, add pepper and carrot and fry another five minutes. Stir in tomatoes, seasoning, stock and heat gently. Once cooked, set aside.
Cover cabbage and cook for 1 ½ hours in oven, checking from time to time that it doesn’t dry out. In the last half hour pour the sauce over the cabbage.
Don’t forget to cook the spuds. Let people sprinkle on their own Parmesan cheese.