Braised Cabbage

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Last week, on a chilly night, I wanted a healthy, inexpensive dinner. I popped open one of my top five favorite cookbooks ever, Molly Stevens’s “All About Braising,” and re-read her recipe for braised cabbage. I’d read it a few times before but was never quite convinced that braised cabbage could taste all that good.

Boy, was I wrong! There’s a reason she calls it “World’s Best Braised Green Cabbage”–it’s tender, flavorful, and, paired with Rachel Wharton’s Bodega Beans, a deeply satisfying, cold-night vegetarian dinner.

Here’s the quick version. Preheat your oven to 325. Oil a 9 X 13 baking dish. Cut a 2 lb green cabbage into 8 wedges. Lay the wedges in the dish. Then scatter one thickly sliced yellow onion over the top, along with 1 large carrot cut into 1/4 inch rounds. Drizzle 1/4 cup olive oil over the top, and 1/4 cup chicken stock or water. Season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes; cover TIGHTLY with foil and bake 1 hour. Remove, flip the cabbage over, re-cover with the foil, and bake another hour. Once the cabbage is tender, remove the foil, increase heat to 400 and let the vegetables brown, another 15 minutes more. That’s it! Sprinkle with fleur de sel and serve.

As a nice corollary to this recipe, I wrote a piece a few months ago about my grandmother’s boiled cabbage from childhood. I didn’t have the stamina to submit it everywhere for publication, so I’ve decided to publish it below. Hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Molly’s cabbage.

Two Grandmas

Good Grandma’s house smells like boiled vegetables. I ride my bike there from three blocks away; I park the bike in the driveway and I pluck a red berry from the inedible berry bush on the path to her door. It’s the 1980s, we’re on Long Island. Good Grandma is married to husband #2—husband #1, my mother’s father, died of skin cancer before I was born; grandpa #2 would die of a brain tumor a few years later—but, at the moment, vegetables are boiling and I ring the doorbell.

The door swings open and a puff of cabbage steam hits me in the face.

“Hello sweetheart,” says Good Grandma, kissing me on the head. “Where’s your jacket? It’s chilly out.”

I follow her in and think of running up the carpeted stairs to the guest room with the flowery wallpaper where, in a drawer, she keeps toys, games and a bag of Hershey’s chocolates.

“I’m on the phone with Leatrice,” she says, leading me into the kitchen. “Sit down and I’ll make you a plate.”

“What are you making?” I ask, pointing to the pot on the stove.

“Boiled vegetables: cabbage, carrots, onions.”

Next to the stove is a bottle of Mrs. Dash. Good Grandma, like my mother, is not a cook; we eat most of our meals at the East Bay Diner (where I color on the placemat) or, on special occasions, The Yankee Clipper, where mom orders a lobster and dad yells at her for taking too long to eat it. But here, in this memory, Good Grandma is boiling vegetables and she strains them on to a plate and aggressively seasons them with synthetic seasoning.

Her head is tilted, holding the phone and chatting with her best friend Leatrice (“I never said that, Leatrice! I said you should lease a car, not buy”), and as she puts the plate down in front of me the smell crawls up to my face, smacking of old ladies and hair products and Judaism.

She puts her hand over the phone. “You want a chocolate soda?”

Good Grandma is the only person I know—the only person I’ve ever known—to keep cases of generic Diet Chocolate Soda in her fridge.

“Ok,” I say.

She gets a glass, fills it with ice (“Leatrice, stop yelling at me!”), and pours the glass full with fizzy soda.

I stare down at the transparent cabbage, the mushy carrot, and the glossy onion and I’m full of joy. I like eating at Good Grandma’s.

* * * *

Bad Grandma, like all female fairy tale villains, is not a real grandmother but a step-grandmother. My father’s mother died before I was born and my father’s father, a kind, quiet man, married Bad Grandma because, as he liked to say, she had “good card sense.”

They lived in South Florida—Sunrise Lakes, land of the Jewish Grandparent—and trips to visit them were infrequent and fraught with tension.

“I’m not putting up with any of her bullshit,” said my mom, getting antsy, as we pulled into Phase III, where they lived. “If she starts anything, we’re leaving.”

I felt bad for my dad. He knew that his father had married a difficult woman (she’d stormed out at many a dinner, refusing, for example, to face a wall) but he longed for some kind of relationship; he wanted his father to know his family.

My mom span around in her seat. “And Adam,” she said, looking at me directly. “You don’t have to eat her egg salad.”

Bad Grandma made egg salad. Almost always, when we walked into their condo (through the screen door, and then the door door) it would smell like boiled eggs. Bad Grandma would be in the kitchen mashing eggs in an orange plastic bowl with a fork.

This time was no exception. Dad’s dad would open the door with a soft smile (he reminded me of Winnie The Pooh), waddling his way inside to show us the way. He’d call to her: “Darling, look who’s here.”

Their apartment was dark and narrow. On the walls were pictures and pictures of her children and grandchildren from her first marriage (she was widowed) and very few, if any, pictures of us.

You could hear her wheezing in the kitchen (she had emphysema). “Tell them I’m in here,” she’d call with her raspy, smoker’s voice.

We followed the sulfurous smell and approached her, still in her nightgown, as she spooned a giant, gloppy mound of mayo into the bowl.

“Hello,” she said, greeting us like a Queen at Court. “Come give me a kiss,” she commanded me and my brother.

Her face was scratchy, her breathing intense. My brother went first, pecking her on the cheek, and I went second.

“How old are you now?” she asked me.

“11.”

“Are you a good boy? Do you have a girlfriend?”

I turned red and shook my head.

“You need a girlfriend, every boy needs a girlfriend.”

She turned back to the bowl and stirred the mayo in with her spoon. She sprinkled on the paprika and said the dreaded words: “Here, try a little egg salad.”

She lifted the spoon with the clotted egg yolk, the square pieces of white, the undistributed mayo, the flecks of red. I looked up at my mom with terror on my face. Was I allowed? Would I get in trouble?

My mom tried her best: “We just ate a big breakfast; he’s not very hungry.”

“Have a little,” she insisted.

So I did. I put the spoon in my mouth and swallowed.

And it didn’t taste bad. Maybe it even tasted good. But there, in Bad Grandma’s kitchen, I felt ill at ease, anxious to leave. I meant nothing to this woman; I was a nuisance, a burden. I tasted that in her food—it wasn’t made with love.

Good Grandma’s boiled vegetables, on the other hand, were simpler and less flavorful. But, today, the smell of boiled cabbage fills me with a warmth that the smell of boiled eggs never will. I see Mrs. Dash at the store and I smile; paprika leaves me cold.

“Thank you,” I murmured, shrinking away from Bad Grandma and standing next to my mother.

Bad Grandma looked at me and looked back down at the bowl. She continued to mash, eager for us to go.

“The secret’s in the mayo,” she said. “You can’t be shy with the mayo.”

She spooned more mayo in, but I knew she was wrong. The secret’s not in the mayo, it’s in the person. It’s the person that makes the food taste good.

26 comments

  1. funny, my grandma lived in sunrise lakes, phase III also! it truly is the land of the jewish grandparent. luckily for me though, i have Good Grandma memories there, particularly of homemade gefilte fish!

  2. Adam, I don’t know if you’re a fan of HBO’s True Blood but the topic of “love in the food” was addressed briefly last night. I wholeheartedly agree with the theory that you can taste the love – or lack thereof – in food.

  3. The braised cabbage looks delicious, and the “Two Grandmas” piece is beautiful – thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    Ironically, I once began a short story for a creative writing class with the line “Grandma’s house always smells like overcooked broccoli.” My real grandma, who inspired the grandma in the story, was a good grandma too. Whether she made me “a cuppa tea” (in her Brooklyn/Longislandese) or spaghetti with jarred Ragu and a block of cheddar cheese melted into it (!), her cooking – like all of her words and deeds – was infused with love, and thus more soul-satisfying than any gourmet meal I’ve had. I miss her dearly.

  4. The braised cabbage looks delicious, and the “Two Grandmas” piece is beautiful – thank you so much for sharing it with us.

    Ironically, I once began a short story for a creative writing class with the line “Grandma’s house always smells like overcooked broccoli.” My real grandma, who inspired the grandma in the story, was a good grandma too. Whether she made me “a cuppa tea” (in her Brooklyn/Longislandese) or spaghetti with jarred Ragu and a block of cheddar cheese melted into it (!), her cooking – like all of her words and deeds – was infused with love, and thus more soul-satisfying than any gourmet meal I’ve had. I miss her dearly.

  5. Thanks for the story of Two Grandmas, Adam. It was funny and so touching at the same time. It made me cry — my mom would have been a Good Grandma to my little boy.

  6. Adam, it’s as if we could be related. I was raised on Long Island. Good, loving grandma in Brooklyn. Bad, cold grandma in Miami. But, my good grandma made stuffed cabbage for us when we came out to visit every Sunday that was To*Die*For. My only regret? Not writing down how she made it.

  7. Adam, its rare we get to see this side of your writing, and for me its a rare treat. You hit the really convey that food memories have personalities, they are not one-dimensional. I love this post and you can share writing like this any time! Thanks for making me smile today with your story.

  8. We were blessed with two good grandma’s. Each with her own specialties and cooking styles, but both delicious always. They were great bakers too.

    Much of what we learned was by “helping” in the kitchen while they told us the whys and hows of what they did. We were always especially thrilled when we each got to make our own little personal pie while grandma made a big one for dessert. Or heating up skin-on hot dogs in home made chicken soup and steaming the buns on a rack atop the pot.

    We will always have many happy memories of those days.

    —-

    I must say- beans and cabbage for dinner. You must have a mighty fine intestinal constitution or very forgiving housemates. *W*

  9. We were blessed with two good grandma’s. Each with her own specialties and cooking styles, but both delicious always. They were great bakers too.

    Much of what we learned was by “helping” in the kitchen while they told us the whys and hows of what they did. We were always especially thrilled when we each got to make our own little personal pie while grandma made a big one for dessert. Or heating up skin-on hot dogs in home made chicken soup and steaming the buns on a rack atop the pot.

    We will always have many happy memories of those days.

    —-

    I must say- beans and cabbage for dinner. You must have a mighty fine intestinal constitution or very forgiving housemates. *W*

  10. Adam,

    This is such a beautifully related message of the truth – food is delicious when made with love, and those memories follow us throughout our lives.

  11. Adam,

    You’re a good writer. These are very touching memories and the recipe doesn’t sound too bad either. Does braised smell better than boiled when its cooking?

    My evil stepmother made crabcakes and only crabcakes. I don’t care how good they might have been, I wouldn’t touch them with the proverbial ten-foot pole.

  12. “Good card sense”…what a great story. Both my grandmothers are the good sort…I associate the one with the pot of iced tea always brewing in the sun during the summer, the other with neon green jello salad and potato casserole (the crust on top is Cornflakes, very 50s) at holidays. I feel about that potato casserole the way you do about your grandmother’s boiled vegetables – I don’t care what kind of gourmet food I eat, I’ll always want that casserole at holidays.

    Also looking forward to making the cabbage – this post reminded me to try the bodega beans recipe, which is fantastic! Perfect grad school food.

  13. Adam, enjoyed your writing on the grandmas…although i was lucky to have experienced two “good grandmas”, there are so many things in common! I wrote the post about us having the same delray beach and borscht experiences, and here again we could be relatives…south florida for my other set of grandparents,and I grew up at the East Bay Diner and the Yankee Clipper! What memories…Feel like we know each other!

    Thanks for the great writing,

    The Kitchen Shrink

  14. Ugh! I cringe to think that paprika is such a terrible memory for you! In my family it is what goes into almost any comfort food! There’s a cute story there involving MY good grandmother. (Although the other one isn’t bad so much as absent.)

    My Grandmother and Grandfather were both immigrants to the US in their teens. They met at college, and got married shortly after. However, my Hungarian Grandfather’s family was NOT pleased that he had married a Russian woman, and so my Grandfather’s relationship with his family became incredibly strained, and he never saw them. They refused to speak to my Grandmother.

    So, in an attempt to make my Grandfather feel more at home, my Grandmother learned to make his favorite Hungarian foods. She added her own twist to each of them, of course, as any good cook will. So now, our biggest holiday/comfort food is Chicken Paprikash. For me, it was always the food that most made me feel loved and part of the family.

  15. Am always looking for different ways to make relatively healthy oven friendly single vegetable dishes, so thank you for this post!

    Putting cabbage down in my grocery list!

  16. Very nice story, Adam. I’m looking forward to making the cabbage. I don’t have a story like that (thankfully). I just had one Sicilian-Irish grandmother who died when I was four, so I have no idea what her food was like, and one little Italian-American grandmother, born and raised in Baltimore, whose Neapolitan mother would go buy octopus right off the boat in the harbor near the Italian section of town – and probably bartering in broken English, if she spoke English at all. My grandmother hardly spoke any Italian, and she didn’t make much in the way of Italian food. But every Thanksgiving she made a killer Thanksgiving dressing/stuffing (I’m not quite sure what she called it, but it never went in the bird). That’s the recipe I think of when I remember her. She’s been gone almost 20 years but that beautiful stuffing recipe remains. Strange, you actually can get choked up over food.

  17. What a wonderful story. As I read it, I remembered my Portuguese grandmother’s house smelling of sweet bread and strong coffee. One of my favorite things to this day is boiled potatoes with lots of salt. Mmmm, it brings back so many good memories.

    I’m going to give the braised cabbage recipe a try… I don’t use cabbage much other than an ingredient in Portuguese Kale Soup, so it will be a nice change.

  18. Oh. My. God.

    I tried this braised cabbage today and–unbelievably fantastic, Adam. So simple, but so delicious. I blogged about it here.

    Thanks for sharing this one! It IS the world’s best!

  19. I made this cabbage tonight as part of a dinner that included barbecued pork chops, biscuits (also an AG recipe), and rice (in case the biscuits didn’t turn out well). The cabbage was so easy and tasty, and the whole meal was a hit! I wish I’d thought to take pictures for the flikr pool. Next time. :)

  20. O my. I’ve never ever ever liked cabbage. I thought it was boring, limp, and flavorless. But I tried this recipe because it was easy and because I’m only eating vegetables and fruit for the rest of the month so I needed some inspiration. At first when I tasted it I didn’t think it was all that special. But it was amazing as leftovers. I guess it’s one of those things that gets sooo much better after it sits. I’m making it again in the very near future….like probably this weekend.

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