Sweet and sour braised cabbage is a familiar character in German beer hall menus, with the punch of vinegar usually offset by melted brown sugar and apples. It's a forceful side, needing to hold its own against bratwurst and schnitzel and steins of Dunkelweizen.
But as I've come to learn from a Sicilian recipe published in 1974, what braised cabbage might have really needed all along wasn't sweetness, but umami.
The recipe comes from the late journalist and historian Waverley Root's cookbook The Best of Italian Cooking, representing the Agrigento region of Sicily.*
The recipe writing style in the book is minimalist, but gets the point across. Shred red cabbage. Heat oil in a pan.
44 words and 45 minutes later, the cabbage is relaxed, but still fresh and briny, having steamed down first in red wine vinegar, then again in a cloak of mashed capers and sliced olives.
The only sweetness is what's been coaxed out of the cabbage—you wouldn't have found it under a layer of extra sugar, but a wash of acid and brine bring it into focus.
"It's not like kinda tasteless cabbage is accented by pows of olives and capers, but rather the cabbage is coated in a olive-caper sauce," our Associate Editor Ali Slagle wrote when she tipped me off to this recipe.
(She also pointed to a Google trend report that showed "cabbage recipes" were the 9th most searched last year, right between pancakes and chili.)
Our collective Google history only confirms that this is a side dish that needs to be freed from its associations with Oktoberfest and German food at large.
Consider its positive qualities: a head of cabbage costs $2 at my bodega in Brooklyn. It's the color of a My Little Pony, in a season typically marked by taupe. When your last salad green has withered away, heads of cabbage will still be rolling out from the dark recesses of the crisper, crunchy as ever. And a recipe like this one makes a lot, and it tastes better with each passing day.
Serve it as a side for pork chops or other rich, well-salted meats, just like its German cousin, or with lighter fish dishes. The vinegar is light-handed enough to let meeker proteins shine.
Make a big batch to top your desk salads and grain bowls and sandwiches for the week. And, according to my food styling choices, with this much umami, cabbage can be dinner (especially if you have some cheese, too).
*Other delightful, maybe genius dishes from Agrigento:
- a timpano with french toast on the outside instead of dough
- conza—a topping considered "poor man's cheese," which also calls for cheese
- eggplant fritters, with the liquid that's drained from the eggplant added back to the dipping sauce
- a spaghetti dish with sugar, cinnamon and chocolate
- Easter cannilera, made from hard-boiled eggs, covered in cookie dough, decorated with colored sugar
- 1 large red cabbage, about 2 1/2 pounds
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
- Chicken broth (vegetable broth or even water are also fine)
- 1/2 cup sliced, pitted oil-cured black olives (kalamata also works, but it will be slightly bitter and tart, rather than salty and meaty)
- 3 tablespoons capers, pounded in a mortar or mashed with the side of a large knife
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Food52's Associate Editor Ali Slagle for this one!
Photos by Bobbi Lin