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Microwave Tricks: Rapid Red Cabbage

microwave sweet and sour braised red cabbage

When I was almost twelve, the year of All the President’s Men (go rent or borrow it from the library if you’ve never seen it), a classmate of mine came back from the weekend raving about a new restaurant his parents had taken him to.

Now, almost no one in my 7th grade math class, particularly not boys, either knew about or talked much about food above the pizza and burger level.

My friend’s family had spent the previous year in Italy–you could tell whenever he grumbled about real soccer with strategy vs. the weak substitute they were teaching us in PE that he was sorry they’d come back. Clearly it wasn’t the only thing he missed–this was the first “real” restaurant he’d been to in the US, and it was way out in the countryside.

The Bavarian Chef (which after 40 years is still open in Madison, VA, and now in Fredericksburg as well, I’m happy to see), had a menu like no other in the area: fondue, a magic word I’d never heard before and which my friend had trouble describing. One fondue with Emmenthal-type cheese for cubes of toasted bread, the other with a red sauce (tomato? redcurrant?) for spicy meatballs. Veal or maybe chicken Cordon Bleu (their current menu still has veal). The side dishes were distinctive as well, particularly the sweet and sour red cabbage…it was gourmet. European gourmet, the real kind, and possibly the first upscale restaurant in our part of Virginia.

In any case, my friend was enthusiastic enough about this place that (and I don’t remember this bit at all) I came home and said something to my parents, who were friends with his parents. The next thing you know, my folks schlepped me and my younger brother and sister out of town–half an hour’s drive and  into the next county–to try it out for my birthday. And my friend was right about all of it.

The cheese fondue was a completely new experience and a lot of fun. So was a glowing magenta side dish of sweet-and-sour red cabbage–it would have been fun for the color alone. Although that has not held true for me and beets, so maybe I shouldn’t say so. But luckily it, unlike beets, was  delicious. And so different from anything else I’d ever eaten that it impressed me even more than the chicken (or veal) with the ham and cheese in the middle, and I can’t remember anything at all about dessert.

Sweet and sour red cabbage, when you think about it, is completely contrary to American standard tastes, even those of 40 years ago when people still ate vegetables and cooked most dinners at home. If you had to describe it to someone at school–what would you even say? The ingredients–and the flavors–are pretty simple individually but surprising together: red cabbage, vinegar, sugar, cloves, salt, maybe black pepper. Maybe a bit of apple or onion in some versions. How could that go together? But it does, and I’ve loved it ever since.

And yet I never ever make it at home, because it takes up to 2 hours of simmering on the stovetop, depending on the recipe you have. The one time I made it, back in my 20s, when I was trying to recreate the experience, the whole apartment smelled really, really sulfurous. It reeked. Even though the cabbage did come out ok.

Too bad I didn’t even own a microwave until my mid-30s. But I’ve been rethinking it since last week, when I saw a picture of it in a Mario Batali cookbook from about 10 years ago. The combination of a German-style dish in an Italian cookbook reminded me of the whole prealgebra food debate and my friend’s unprecedented idea that good food was worth traveling for.

But you don’t have to travel far for this dish, and you certainly don’t have to spend 2-3 hours on it. There’s got to be a way, I decided (as usual). How hard could it be to microwave it?

Well,  it worked almost perfectly, at least as a test case:

Microwave-braised Red Cabbage (individual amount; scale up as desired)

  • A chunk of red cabbage, maybe 1/8 head, in thick shreds or bite size pieces
  • a couple of shakes of red wine vinegar
  • a pinch each of sugar and cloves
  • light shake of salt

Combine these ingredients in a microwaveable bowl or container with a lid. Stir, put the lid on, microwave a minute on HIGH, stop and check progress (lean too close, get a noseful of vinegar fumes, cough, wipe eyes), stir, cover again and hit the button for another two minutes or until cabbage is tender through. Another small pinch of cloves seemed to get it just about right, from distant memory.

– – –

Red cabbage is, I’m thankful, one of the perennially Cheap Vegetables ™ in the US supermarkets, and the vinegar can be apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar. It does not have to be and probably shouldn’t be fancy. The acidity will keep the cabbage red-violet and pretty rather than blueish-green when cooked. And the flavorings can be increased or left out or played with at will until you hit the combination that seems right to you.

About scaling up:

Mario Batali’s version includes more sugar and vinegar proportionally than I did or would. For a two-pound head of cabbage, he’s got a couple of tablespoons of sugar and fully half a cup of vinegar, plus a quarter-cup of olive oil and some onions, a little salt and pepper. Also two tablespoons of caraway seeds, which is pretty strong but classic and interesting.

For me, the right balance isn’t very sweet or very vinegary, as though this were sweet pickles with cabbage.

The pinch of sugar (when scaling up on my first attempt’s proportions, it might go to half a teaspoon, a teaspoon for the whole head of cabbage) is more to soften the blow than to sweeten overtly. What I’m aiming for is a suggestion of sweet, a slightly stronger tinge of vinegar, the cabbage itself not cooked to sulfurous death but tender and savory, and the aromatic pick-me-up hint of cloves, all in balance.

Based on my test case version, I’d start with just a teaspoon of sugar and a couple of tablespoons of vinegar for half or even a head of cabbage and taste, then add. You may not need it all. I figure you can always add more if you want but you can’t subtract.

The salt, I feel, should definitely be kept to a shake or two max rather than spoonlike quantities, and adjusted only after it’s cooked through. If anything, a little more clove is preferable to more salt or sugar.

And if you do a test batch, you might want to throw in a little caraway seed just to see how it plays. Don’t know if it would go with the cloves I used, though. One or the other; probably not both.

Finally, the (previously) unmentioned difference between microwaving and pan-braising. My experimental microwave version may not be as lush as the full-on conventional recipes, partly because I didn’t add any oil since I wasn’t frying anything. A small drizzle in the microwave bowl (not a whole quarter cup certainly!) with the cabbage and vinegar might have been worthwhile to get the texture as close as possible to the original without it becoming oily. But this was pretty good for a first try. Maybe 90-95 percent as good as the real, long-simmered thing, and it only took three minutes.

The next step, of course, is to try it out on someone who knows. We have a close friend from Köln who cooks amazingly well, and I admit he might not be as impressed as I am with this jump to lightspeed in the red cabbage department, but then again he’s an engineer like my husband and he might like it after all.

[Admiring but irritated P.S.: Barbara Kafka’s scarily extensive cookbook, Microwave Gourmet (1987 and reissued 1992, I think), includes a recipe for sweet and sour red cabbage. She includes butter in the casserole and does most of the same things BUT has a lot more ingredients–brown sugar, white sugar AND molasses? really? unnecessary, I feel–and it takes some 16 minutes because her oven was probably a lot lower wattage than today’s. But there you have it–she still got there first.

And it’s kind of a shame people aren’t more familiar with her book anymore, even though the cooking times are now way off. Some of the food seems a little stuffy, either  ladies-who-lunch-in-gloves or ’80s-French-continental, with more sauce ingredients than seem fresh, necessary or delicious to me on a casual read. But many of her ideas are practical, all are ambitious to create full-fledged dishes in the microwave, and some of the ideas are still innovative even for the molecular gastronomy era…]

One Response

  1. The sweet/sour/clove idea is found in a whole bunch of medieval recipes from all parts of Europe, so I’m thinking the Germans just held onto it.

    Definitely–it’s been attributed to the Near Eastern cuisines the Crusaders discovered and that they (or more likely some of the spice etc. merchants who saw an opportunity and came back in their wake to establish new markets) brought back to Europe. Richard II’s chef wrote a book, The Form of Cury (freely available online I can’t remember where) with tons of recipes from about 1400 England. The “cameline sauce” sticks in my mind–cinnamon, cloves, ginger, grains of paradise etc, maybe mustard as well–boiled up in vinegar and poured over meats or else included in meat- or fish-containing quiches.

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