Humble Luxury

By Sanford D’Amato | Photography by Kevin J. Miyazaki

On my wife Angie’s and my first date, I picked her up at her grandmother’s home on the east side of Milwaukee, where she was living while attending college.  I rang the bell at the back door and she ushered me into the tiny hallway.  She quickly grabbed her coat off the hook and, mildly flustered, said, “Smell that?  I have to eat that later.”  It was the unmistakable fragrance of cabbage.

There was no need for any embarrassment as I was quite at home with cabbage. The aroma (or smell, depending on what camp you’re in) would permeate every nook and cranny of my childhood home. It would mean only one thing:  boiled dinner.  In our house, it was some combination of smoked pork butt, onions, carrots, garlic, potatoes, and cabbage, a hearty meal even if it only had half the ingredients. I loved the flavor combination of the slightly fatty, smoky pork against the silky richness of the cabbage.  In fact, this was one of the first meals that I cooked for myself when I went out on my own—warm, satisfying, and homey.  

Turns out that Angie’s grandmother, Martha, with her Polish roots, was a cabbage maven.  For her, it was a biweekly experience and Angie waxed lyrical about cabbage with melted butter in the same way I spoke about Sicilian spiedini. 

Cabbage doesn’t have the protective armor of other cold-weather root vegetables or winter squash, but don’t let that fool you: Cabbage is a keeper, having a terrific shelf life under cool conditions.

More than any other vegetable, it has managed to capture and embody the “humble” moniker. Name the cuisine and cabbage will be present, always seeming to support, but in reality comprising the backbone that holds it all together. What would Korean food be without kimchi? Corned beef lacking cabbage is just a bunch of blarney. A proper French pot-au-feu would flounder sans cabbage. German cuisine “mittout” sauerkraut is a loud nein! And the Polish, Russians, Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, Serbians, and Croatians, to name a few, would roll over and die before they would give up their cabbage.  

Angie and I have had many great meals in our lives, but none was as unexpectedly memorable as Le Florimond in Paris in 1992.  On the suggestion of our waiter, we ordered the chou farci, stuffed cabbage. The waiter lifted the lid of the oval cocotte and lovingly elevated the tender rolls from their viscous, aromatic broth onto stark white plates. They were then draped with the broth and a few molten carrots.  Our first taste was almost shocking. Their magnificent flavor belied their spartan presentation. We quickly realized that anything more would have been superfluous—this was a perfect dish.  

The two recipes that follow thoroughly indulge my enchantment with this vegetable. First, my take on those succulent cabbage rolls. This recipe takes a bit of time, but from the first succulent bite you’ll agree the results are well worth it. The second, which takes almost no time at all, is simply steamed cabbage sprinkled with the best-quality fruity Provençal extra-virgin olive oil you can procure and a dusting of crunchy fleur du sel, the “lace filigree” of salt that is harvested before the water evaporates to render sea salt. The humble cabbage is a sublime partner for these luxury ingredients.

In the next few months, you owe it to yourself to pick up a large, fresh Pioneer Valley cabbage from a farmers market or roadside stand. Then steam it up and you might find yourself proudly saying, “Smell that? I’m not sharing!”