Cabbage: Hungarian Traditions & New Adventures

Cabbage is ruling the Farmer’s Markets these days – so it seemed high time to whip up some favorite recipes with this “super vegetable.” Loaded with vitamins and fiber, cruciferous veggies like cabbage might even lower your risk of getting cancer. So I need to eat more of it.

 When I think of cabbage, three recipes come to mind. The first is from youth and was, at the time, considered an exotic adventure in Asian dining. It involved pale, plain, shredded green cabbage tossed with crisped Top Ramen noodles. The dressing used to top this oh-so-elegant dish consisted of the “flavor packet” contained in the “Oriental” version of this culinary evil-doer along with too much vegetable oil, white sugar and soy sauce. Truth be told, I used to adore this dish. Alas, not the healthiest cabbage recipe in the world.  

 The other two recipes – one for pork & rice-stuffed cabbage with sauerkraut and the other for braised red cabbage served alongside our family’s traditional Christmas Eve pork roast – remind me of my mother. So I’ll stick with these memories…

 A bit about my mother. She was born in Hungary where my grandparents operated a pharmacy.  After their home was bombed in 1944 the family fled to Bavaria to escape the Soviet occupation.  Mom attended a German school for a year and then a Hungarian girl’s school until 1951 when the family emigrated in a US troopship to America.  They finally settled in San Francisco and mom met my dad when they both were studying chemistry at UC Berkeley – near the home where I was raised.

 So I grew up eating a wide variety of Hungarian “delicacies.” I recall I didn’t exactly salivate over mom’s stuffed cabbage or braised red cabbage. In my youth I leaned toward whatever my friends were eating – Nacho Cheese Doritos and hot dogs. Definitely not Hungarian food. That just wasn’t very cool.  

I have since reformed. Mom taught me, with great patience, how to perfect the steaming rolls of pork and rice wrapped with cabbage, nestled in savory, dill-infused sauerkraut and topped with a generous dollop of rich sour cream. Until I stopped eating meat a year and a half ago, stuffed cabbage was a favorite winter dish. Heavenly.

Sadly mom passed away in 2008. I would give anything for another day in the kitchen with her or a shared meal at the dinner table. However, I think she would have been pleased that I am carrying on our Christmas Eve tradition and was able to whip up a respectable version of her braised red cabbage this past December 24th. It was like she was standing next to me, helping me adjust the caraway seeds, vinegar and brown sugar. And I have made stuffed cabbage for dad to have on hand in the freezer for a quick, hearty dinner when the nights turn cold. It is when I am cooking these meals that I am closest to my mother. So I am forever grateful that she shared these traditions with me and took the time to ensure I mastered a number of influential Hungarian recipes.

Hungarian Braised Red Cabbage

Ingredients

  • One small yellow onion (about ½ cup chopped)
  • One head red cabbage
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar, packed
  • 3 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • Salt & pepper to taste

 Instructions

Chop the onion (small-medium chop) and sauté in olive oil over medium low heat until soft – approximately 5 minutes.

Remove core from cabbage and cut into about six wedges. Finely chop wedges into ribbons.  Add to onions. Add brown sugar, vinegar & caraway seeds and a dash of salt and freshly ground pepper. Stir thoroughly. Turn heat down to low. Simmer for ~25 minutes – stirring frequently. You will want a bit of liquid to release. If it remains on the dry side, cover for the last 10 minutes. On the other hand, sometimes a good deal of liquid releases and it can get a bit soupy. If that’s the case, leave the cover off.  Season with salt & pepper and taste to see if more brown sugar or vinegar is needed.

Consider serving with oven-roasted pork and potatoes. Or it’s delicious on its own.

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I just couldn’t resist picking up one of these beautiful, frothy-leafed beauties at the Farmer’s Market. Having never cooked with Savoy cabbage, I had to ask the nice lady at the stall for preparation tips. And, truth be told, I had to contact my new foodie friend Devra of Patty Pan at the Ballard Farmer’s Market* to confirm that I had, in fact, correctly identified said cabbage as Savoy.

(*You should know that Devra also writes the wonderful Quirky Gourmet blog and has penned some great cook books focused on local, seasonal vegan cooking.)

A lot of recipes toss the green leaves into soups. Which sounds divine. But considering this was my inaugural outing with Savoy, I wanted to really taste the cabbage and feel the texture on my tongue. So I decided to search for a salad recipe. And when the first one I stumbled upon mentioned that it was inspired by the “homey and hearty dishes of Louis Szathmáry—a splendidly mustached man who was the chef-owner of Chicago’s well-known Hungarian restaurant The Baker” – I knew I had found just what I was looking for. The following is loosely based on an October 2000 Gourmet magazine recipe.

Savoy Cabbage, Carrot & Apple Salad 

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons apple juice
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds, lightly crushed
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 head Savoy cabbage, cored, quartered and very thinly sliced
  • 2 medium carrots, very thinly julienned
  • 1 Granny Smith apple, quartered, cored, and sliced thinly
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Instructions

Whisk together juices, vinegar, sugar, oil and caraway seeds. Season with salt and pepper and toss with cabbage, carrots, and apple.

Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend and cabbage to wilt.

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End note – for those interested in the pork filled cabbage described above – please shoot me a note and I’d be happy to share the recipe. And I’m going to work on a vegetarian version with mushrooms. You gotta love the versatility of cabbage!

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