There has been a red cabbage in the bottom of the fridge for longer than I care to say. It has been quietly watching me, probably wondering when it was going to get its 15 minutes of fame. Once the purple pride of my shopping bag, it now sits and haunts me as surely as an unposted thank-you letter.
You cannot wait to get certain vegetables into the pot - bunches of spinach, those frilly hearts of kale as beautiful as any Valentine bouquet and, for me especially, the spoon-leafed Chinese veggies such as pak choi and their juicy stems. They have an urgency that invites you to cook them the minute you get them home. Others just sit there quietly nagging, continually passed by for something fresher and more short-lived, until their wizened presence embarrasses us enough to put them out of their misery.
It is always the same with winter vegetables. The last two celeriac I bought ended up on the compost heap - shame on me - but I promise never to let it happen again. I picked them up in a fit of enthusiasm for their creamy ivory skin and lush plume of emerald green. Those leaves dried to a crisp, their skin withered and turned grey - in short, they rotted. Deep down I knew they were there, waiting patiently as I roasted pumpkins, steamed mustard greens and blitzed beetroot into juice. Every time I put a Savoy cabbage, a bunch of fat carrots, a football-sized red cabbage into my bag, I could hear them screaming: 'Use us, use us.' After a fortnight or so, their pleas had become a barely audible whimper. After three weeks in the vegetable rack, my heads of celeriac resembled nothing more than Norman Bates's mother in her rocking chair.
My red cabbage on the other hand is beginning to feel like an old friend. We renew our friendship once a week when I clean out the salad drawer, rekindling my enthusiasm by peeling off another layer of blackening leaves, once as crisp as chicken bones, to reveal a fresh purple gloss. This week, I promise.
The initial excitement was for its deep magenta leaves with their dusty bloom of mauve. As you turn the hard head of leaves over in your hand, you cannot but help picture the brilliant, jewel-like colours you will get when your shredded red cabbage meets the sting of wine vinegar. Yet I rarely get round to using a red cabbage till its outer skin is black and its once-tempting crunch has softened to a dull thud. This vegetable's keeping-qualities are its downfall. Put it into the same use-me-quick category as spinach or sorrel and it would be the star of any table.
When it finally gets to the stove, the red cabbage is almost certain to meet its knee-jerk fate of being cooked with apples and vinegar. And I don't see why not - the pairing works. Cabbage of any colour likes meeting up with juniper berries, garlic, onions, apples, vinegar and pork. Such flavours flatter. But there are others, too. I made a crisp salad this week with shredded cabbage lightly fried in oil then drained and tossed with lumps of fried smoked bacon, crumbled pecan nuts, rough shards of Cheshire cheese and a mustard, oil and white-wine vinegar dressing. It was a little gem of a winter salad.
Bacon has crept into many of the season's vegetable dishes. The smoky saltiness is perhaps the answer to accompany the roast parsnips, to tip over the mashed swedes and to sneak into the cabbage stir-fries that make up much winter fodder. It will turn up with the new head of celeriac I have just bought, too. I will coarsely grate it while the vegetable is still firm and pale and toss it in the hot bacon fat with some toasted walnuts and some roughly chopped fennel fronds. This week, I promise.
Boiled gammon and red cabbage with juniper sauce
Cabbage has a well-known affinity with ham, as does apple, and all three work beautifully with juniper. It seemed only natural to bring them all together for a winter's Saturday lunch. I have used some of the ham's cooking liquor in the juniper sauce and just a very little cream, but given it some edge with a squeeze of lemon. Five of us ate this for a Saturday lunch with baked sweet potatoes. The fluffy, vivid orange potatoes took about 50 minutes at 200 C/gas mark 6 and made sense what with the slight bitterness of the cabbage and juniper and the fact that the hob is already full with ham, sauce and cabbage pots and the oven empty. We had a bit of Stilton and the rest of the celery afterwards. Serves 5-6.
1.5kg piece of smoked gammon
1 bottle of apple juice
2 large carrots
2 sticks of celery
1 small onion
2 or 3 bay leaves
8 juniper berries
for the cabbage
a little peanut oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 small red cabbage or half a larger one, finely shredded
for the sauce
3 ladlefuls of the gammon cooking liquor
6 or 7 juniper berries, crushed in a pestle and mortar
1-2 tsp Dijon mustard
3-4 tbsp double cream
a squeeze of lemon juice
Put a large pot on the stove, sit the gammon in it, and pour in the apple juice and enough water to lap at the top of the meat. Bring to the boil, then skim off the froth that comes to the surface. Turn the heat down so that the liquid is just bubbling, then slide in the carrots and celery, nicely scrubbed, the washed leeks, the onion, bay leaves, the juniper berries and 4 or 5 whole black peppercorns. Let the meat simmer gently for about an hour, maybe a little longer, until it is cooked right through to the middle. If you are doing the baked sweet potatoes, and I hope you are, then put them in when the ham has been on for about 20 minutes.
Once the ham is cooked, get a frying pan hot with a little peanut oil in it. Add the garlic, then the shredded cabbage, tossing it around for a minute or two over high heat until the cabbage is bright and garlicky.
Remove three or four ladlefuls of the stock into another, smaller pan, add the juniper berries and let it boil until it has reduced by half. This will only take a few minutes at a good boil. Now stir or whisk in the mustard and the cream and grind in a little black pepper. Taste for salt - I find it doesn't need it, but much will depend on your ham.
Carve the ham, laying it in a warm dish or plate with some of the cooking liquor spooned over to keep it moist and hot. Take it to the table with the sauce (give it a last-minute bubble to get it really hot), squeezing in the lemon at the last minute. Serve the ham, the cabbage and the potatoes, spooning a little of the juniper sauce over the ham as you do so.
Red cabbage with juniper and dill
You could, of course, eat this sweet-sour cabbage with pork or bacon. I ate it with store-bought rollmops, and some big, fat boiled potatoes. Lots of chopped dill, and a glass of beer turned it into a pleasant enough supper. The rollmops were sharp and cold, and the potatoes hot and floury, and the cabbage hot and sweet and sour. I had found some dark rye bread, too. Lively tastes for a winter's day.
There is nothing new about adding sweet and sharp flavours simultaneously to red cabbage. You could substitute sultanas or raisins for my apricots if you wish (I used them because of their sweet-tartness), and you might prefer white-wine vinegar to my red. The point is simply to soften the cabbage's 'cabbaginess' with a mixture of sweet and sharp flavours. The juniper berries bring a bitter herbal note, too. Serves 4 as a side dish.
half a small cabbage, or a quarter of a larger one
a little olive oil
1 fat clove of garlic
the juice of 1 orange
6 juniper berries
6 dried apricots
3 tbsp red-wine vinegar
a few bushy springs of dill
Peel the onion and cut it into thin slices. Put it into a heavy-based pan with a little olive oil and set it over a low to moderate heat. Shred the cabbage finely, cutting away and discarding the hard core. Rinse thoroughly, then drain and add to the onion with the garlic, peeled and sliced, and a good grinding of salt. Turn the cabbage in the oil, raising the heat if nothing much is happening, till the colour is bright - a matter of a minute or two.
Halve the orange and squeeze it. Squash the juniper berries roughly, maybe with the flat of a heavy knife blade or a pestle. You don't want them so much to be a powder, more simply well bruised. (The smell will be not dissimilar from that of a gin and tonic.) Slice the apricots. Pour the juice and stir the berries and apricots into the cabbage, cover with a tight lid, and leave to steam for 15 minutes or so. You want the cabbage to be soft and vivid purple.
Pour the vinegar into the cabbage and leave for a minute till most of it has evaporated, then chop the dill and toss it in.