Cabbage: A Lean, Tasty Green for Lean Times

During those dreary first weeks of every new year, I can count on two things: I will be broke and I will be dieting. This year I am mildly heartened by the facts that pretty much everybody else in the world is also broke, and that Oprah, who is not, is on a diet. Oprah, of course, has her own nutrition and fitness guru, Bob Greene. I have cabbage soup.

Yes, it is the same diet you've seen for the last 20 years on web sites and in the pages of National Enquirer, touting its promise to take off up to 15 pounds in a single week. Its origins are spurious (the claim that it was developed by doctors at Seattle's Sacred Heart Hospital for obese heart patients turns out to be bogus), And its menu almost comical (on day four, as I write, I am allowed six bananas, eight glasses of skim milk, and the soup). But it works. I have yet to lose anything less than 10 pounds on the thing, and while I am perfectly aware that the loss is mostly water, I don't care. I invariably feel so virtuous that I keep going. Plus, I have developed an uncommon affection for cabbage, my annual savior.

This is good news, because in these dire economic times, cabbage, which averages about 49 cents a pound, is not a bad thing to love. I am a southerner, and like the Irish, who have their own historic relationship with cabbage, we have long known a few things about being poor and downtrodden. In the south, "smothered" cabbage (braised in bacon or salt pork) is a mainstay at the "meat-and-three" plate-lunch joints that still dot the landscape. There is even a popular chain restaurant—the aptly named Po Folks—at which cabbage is a vegetable choice every day.

But versions of the same dish can be found on the plates of far finer establishments. One of the signatures of the late Gilbert Lecoze, founding chef and owner at Manhattan's Michelin three-star Le Bernardin, was roast monkfish on a bed of savoy cabbage Braised In butter and bacon. the current chef, the insanely talented Eric Ripert, who now owns the restaurant with Lecoze's sister Maguy, still makes the dish when regulars ask for it—which, he says, is frequently. "It has great flavor, real ingredients. that's what people want now," Ripert tells me. "They are tired of the esoteric. It's, 'just give me the braised carrots, please, not the smell of them'."

Indeed, the folks who monitor this stuff—trend-spotters, marketers, et al—tell me that in 2009, exhausted diners will reject such show-off antics as the molecular gastronomy that Ripert refers to. They are ready for another round of comfort food and simple, straightforward cooking. "Intellectual 'head food' is done," says Tanya Steel, Editor of Epicurious.Com. "At the end of the day, people really want food they know and flavors they understand."

At Le Bernardin, Ripert has always adhered to that rule. you can't get more straightforward than, say, baked langoustine with lemon-seaweed butter from the "barely touched" section of his menu, or a whole red snapper baked in a rosemary-thyme salt crust. This may be why, even though Le Bernardin is one of the priciest restaurants in New York, 2007 was its strongest year ever, and the drop in sales since has been limited to the single digits. Ripert points out that fish is also the perfect diet food, but a few weeks ago he gave folks another reason to feel virtuous about eating in his restaurant. For every customer in 2009, Le Bernardin will donate $1 per diner to City Harvest, a "food rescue" organization that feeds more than 260,000 of New York's hungry each week. By year's end, the gift should total at least $100,000.

Ripert's own favorite offering on the current menu is halibut in a sea urchin mustard sauce with baby brussels sprouts for "earthiness and texture" (for the record, brussels sprouts are a cabbage). But when he craves more peasant-style food, he goes for cassoulet or fejoada feijoada, a brazilian black-bean dish invented by slaves, flavored with the tongue and organ meats discarded by their owners. Dried beans are another economical food choice; as it happens, they go well with cabbage. In the south, on New Year's Day, we eat black-eyed peas to bring us luck, accompanied by cabbage to bring us money. The great Jeremiah Tower offers savoy cabbage and white beans tossed with duxelles (finely chopped mushrooms sautéed in butter with shallots) in "Jeremiah Tower Cooks," and his cabbage slaw is a perfect accompaniment to his justifiably famous black-bean cake.

Since Lecoze's early brilliant pairing of the monkfish with cabbage, other chefs have followed suit. In the terrific New Chanterelle Cookbook, David Waltuck places salmon on a bed of cabbage in a divine grapefruit butter, and Patricia Wells, in her latest, "Vegetable Harvest," offers a slightly more virtuous version of the same dish with steamed cabbage tossed in just a bit of cream. When I am not on a diet, i braise my cabbage in Riesling with applewood-smoked bacon. It is good with or without fish.

Cabbage Braised With Riesling And Bacon
serves 4

1 cabbage (about 1 pound)
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
1 small carrot, peeled and diced
½ large stalk of celery, peeled and diced
1 small yellow onion, peeled and diced
4 ounces smoked bacon, sliced
¼-inch think, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
¾ cup slightly sweet riesling or gewurztraminer
2 teaspoons salt, freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or cider vinegar

Slice the cabbage in half, remove the core, and cut the cabbage into rough chunks about 1 inch wide. Warm the olive oil in a six-quart noncorroding casserole. Add the vegetables, bacon, thyme and wine and bring to a simmer. Put half the cabbage in the pot and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of the salt and a little freshly ground pepper over the layer. Repeat with the remaining cabbage.

Cover the pot tightly and braise the cabbage slowly over low heat. After 20 minutes, stir the cabbage gently so that the leaves on top move to the bottom and the vegetables and bacon are mixed throughout. Replace the cover and cook another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cabbage is tender. Taste the cabbage and correct for salt and pepper if necessary. add the vinegar and toss well. the cabbage can be made several hours in advance, or while a roast is cooking, and warmed just before serving it.

Roast monkfish on savoy cabbage and bacon-butter sauce
(Adapted from "Le Bernardin Cookbook" By Maguy Lecoze and Eric Ripert)
Makes 4 servings

¼ pound double-smoked slab bacon, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices and then across into ¼-inch-wide strips
21/2 cups fish fumet
2 heads savoy cabbage
1 cup unsalted butter
2 tablespoons corn oil
2 pounds cleaned monkfish tail, cut into four portionsfine sea salt, to taste
freshly ground white pepper, to taste
8 sprigs fresh chervil (optional)

Special equipment: two 10-inch nonstick ovenproof skillets

1. Put the bacon in a medium-size skillet over medium heat. Sauté until the slices are lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Drain and place in a medium-size saucepan. Add 2 cups of the fumet and bring to a boil. lower the heat slightly and simmer until reduced to ¾ cup, about 15 minutes. Strain, reserving the bacon. put the fumet back in the saucepan and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, core the cabbages and remove the very green, outer leaves. Pull off 24 leaves from the center of the cabbage and reserve the outer and inner leaves. Stack 2 leaves together, roll them up, and cut the roll across into ¼-wide slices. Repeat with the remaining leaves.

3. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the cabbage slices until crisp-tender, about 1 minute. Drain and refresh under cold running water. Drain again and set aside.

4. Preheat the oven to 550 degrees. Bring the fumet back to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and add ¼ cup of butter at a time, whisking constantly until all the butter is incorporated. Set aside.

5. Divide the corn oil between the skillets and place over high heat until the oil is just smoking. Put two pieces of monkfish in each skillet and sauté until the fish is browned on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Turn the fish over and put the skillets in the oven. roast from about 8 minutes, until a metal skewer can be easily inserted in the fish and, when left in for 5 seconds, feels hot when touched to your lip.

6. Meanwhile, add ½ cup of fumet to the sauce and bring to a simmer. Put the cabbage in another saucepan and add half the bacon (save the rest for another use) and ½ cup of the sauce. Place over medium heat until hot. season with salt and pepper.

7. Spoon the cabbage into the center of four dinner plates, making an oval-shape bed. Cut the monkfish across into ¼-inch wide slices and season with salt and pepper. fan the slices over the cabbage. Spoon the sauce over the fish and around the cabbage, to cover the plates. Garnish with chervil, if desired. Serve immediately.