The Genius That Happens When a Classic German Side Goes to Sicily

February 24, 2016

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.*

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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.

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Top Comment:
“I'm a bit confused about the "1/2 cup sliced, pitted oil-cured black olives" that should not be kalamata. The stuff in the can is dreadful, but I'm not sure how to check that a black olive is not a dyed green one or kalamata. ”
— Moire

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:

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

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Moire
  • Jill Reed
    Jill Reed
  • Alexandra Stafford
    Alexandra Stafford
  • Kristen Miglore
    Kristen Miglore
  • Evaluna
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Moire February 28, 2016
I'm a bit confused about the "1/2 cup sliced, pitted oil-cured black olives" that should not be kalamata. The stuff in the can is dreadful, but I'm not sure how to check that a black olive is not a dyed green one or kalamata.

Jill R. February 28, 2016
Does it make a difference if you use green cabbage instead of red - other than color? I've never appreciated a significant difference in taste between the two.
Alexandra S. February 25, 2016
Bread, cabbage, cheese, wine — a perfect dinner! I have been making my husband's grandmother's red cabbage with red currant jelly, sugar, and vinegar for years, and while it has a place on the Thanksgiving table, I've never been able to find a place for it any other time of the year — it's just a little too much. Very excited about this caper-olive cabbage!
Kristen M. February 25, 2016
Thanks, Ali! You've summed up my feelings exactly.
Evaluna February 29, 2016
can you share your grandmother's recipe?
Alexandra S. February 29, 2016
Of course!

Grandma Violet's Red Sweet and Sour Danish Cabbage

2 heads of red cabbage, shredded or chopped
1/2 jar (or more) red currant jelly
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vinegar (or more)
1/2 to 3/4 cups butter

Place chopped up cabbage in large Dutch oven and cook with butter, jelly, sugar and vinegar until soft. The longer you simmer it, the better it will taste. Add more sugar, jelly or vinegar to taste. Add salt to taste.

My notes: This really is a "to-taste" recipe. When we make it, we simmer it for hours and everyone weighs in on what it needs — more salt, more vinegar, etc. — but it all comes together in the end :)