Comfort Food—A Winter Story
We’ve been told that January and February are the cruelest months in the Valle d’Itria in Puglia, Italy. If it’s going to snow, it’s likely that it’ll happen during these first two months of the year. If not, a regular schedule of icy winds sent straight from the Russian steppes whip their way through the twisty little streets of our centro storico. So we expected the worst.
Well, we do have icy north winds and the occasional full-blown tempest complete with thunder, lightening and cold, cold rain. But all of that meteorological drama is regularly punctuated by gorgeous blue skies and warm sun, which make us feel glad to be alive. We’re also especially relieved that we’re not almost anywhere else in Europe, which is under a dense weather cloud of relentless rain, sleet and snow. Through it all here, though, we have found many occasions to rustle up a wintry menu featuring the surprisingly varied offerings in the January fruit and vegetable market. Beans are often bubbling away on the stove in a terracotta pot dedicated for this purpose. We’re also pretty addicted to the array of brassicas here: chicory, broccoli rabe, mugnolo (a gorgeous violet-colored cauliflower), broccoli romanesco and our current obsession, cabbage.
I used to be an indifferent cabbage eater. I knew how much nutrition it provides—lots of Vitamins C and K and sulfurous compounds called glucosinolates that are powerful cancer-fighting phytochemicals. So I’d make occasional coleslaw in vinaigrette or add some julienned cabbage to winter soups, but I never found cabbage particularly gratifying in and of itself. That was before I discovered the flavor of just-harvested Savoy cabbage that is grown locally throughout the winter here. What a revelation! Nutty and sweet, with a silky texture after a nice, long braise . . . well, it’s become a staple.
Here’s a ridiculously simple recipe that defines the concept of healthy comfort food. It really isn’t an oxymoron. Try this recipe that pairs braised cabbage and a delicately poached egg and discover warmth, satisfaction and a slightly smug afterglow only possible when you know you’ve eaten something that contributes to great health and has satisfied you completely.
Cavolo in Umido—Braised Cabbage
1 large white or yellow onion
1 head of Savoy cabbage
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly grated black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
Water or white wine, as needed
Cover the bottom of a heavy-bottomed sauté pan with a layer of extra virgin olive oil. (Cast iron is great for this, but since cast iron doesn’t seem to exist in Italy, I have been using a sauté pan I found in the market for 3 euros that seems to be doing the job.) Heat the olive oil over medium-low heat.
Chop the onion into half-inch cubes and add them to the olive oil. Cover the pan and let the onions simmer for 10-15 minutes without turning brown while you prepare the cabbage.
Core the cabbage, cut it in quarters and slice each quarter as thin as you possibly can. When you are finished, you should have a big bowlful of very thin cabbage ribbons. Add the cabbage to the onions in the sauté pan. Add salt and pepper to taste, stir the cabbage to blend, lifting the sautéed onions up and over the cabbage to cause the cabbage to start to wilt. Add the vinegar and stir again thoroughly.
Lower the heat and cover the pan. Leave it alone for about an hour, checking it every so often to make sure nothing is browning too much and the pan isn’t dry. If it is, add a little white wine or water and cover again. Stir from time to time to make sure the cabbage is braising evenly.
When the cabbage is very, very tender and a pale green/golden brown color, bring a small saucepan of water to boil. Once it has come to a boil, reduce the temperature so the water is only barely simmering, with just a bubble or two breaking the surface of the water. Add a teaspoon or so of white wine vinegar and a pinch of salt.
Break one of the four eggs into a little bowl (an espresso cup works well here, too). With a wooden spoon, stir the almost-boiling water in the saucepan in one direction, making a kind of vortex in the middle. While stirring, slide the egg in the middle of the vortex, then stop stirring. It seems cumbersome and a little dramatic, but all this whirlpool action helps the egg to stay together in the center of the pan while it poaches.
Poach each egg just like this in succession for about two minutes. As each egg is set to the consistency you like (a semi-runny yolk is important, so don’t go beyond the two minutes), carefully fish it out of the water and lay it to rest in a bowl that you have lined with a paper towel or two. Of course, if you have a more sophisticated egg poaching method, please feel free to employ it. Our Italian kitchen is small and our kitchen tools fairly limited, so I’ve given you the basic approach, which works surprisingly well.
While poaching the eggs, divide the braised cabbage into four servings in pasta bowls. Make a little indentation in the center of each portion. Serve each poached egg by placing each one in the indentation you made. You may want to drizzle a little more extra virgin olive oil over the top; you can also dust the top with a little chopped Italian parsley and a dusting of Spanish pimenton dulce. A piece of grilled bread rubbed with a cut clove of garlic and a little more extra virgin olive oil wouldn’t be out of place either.