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.
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.
“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.