On life lessons and red cabbage

Phew! What a whirlwind the last couple of weeks have been. A pleasant whirlwind – a trip to a warm place, a lot of good food, many generous gifts, and cherished time with loved ones – but a whirlwind nonetheless.

As a result, I obviously have not been back here to share with you the recipes I promised last time. So much for being optimistic about the amount of time I would have to devote to this blog while on my winter break! Ah well, optimism is better than its opposite, no?

I did make some successful Christmas treats, including the Food52 Pine Nut Brittle (aka object of my obsession), which was just as good as I imagined it would be.

pine nut brittle

Its flavors are a bit unexpected in a brittle, so it might not be for everyone. For me though, the surprise is delightful and the salty, herbal flavor coupled with the toasty taste of the pine nuts sets the caramel sweetness off just perfectly.

Now, the holidays are nearly over though and the time for sweets has come to an end…er, well, at least it has slowed down a little, as we recover from our two months of indulgence. So, I won’t linger on the brittle recipe today. But if you are looking for something sweet to serve at your New Year’s party, I highly recommend it.

Instead, I want to tell you about a warm, complex, soul-satisfying red cabbage salad that, despite some strong resistance on my part, I just love. You see, I have been in a stand-off with a head of red cabbage that has been in my refrigerator for longer than I care to admit. It has taught me things though, this red cabbage, things about life.

warm red cabbage salad

It all started when I bought the red cabbage for a specific recipe that I had stubbornly decided to make, even though I sensed that I probably would not like the dish. I never just have red cabbage lying around; it is not a piece of produce that is in my regular rotation. I happened upon this recipe though and doggedly decided that I was going to give it a try. So, I bought a head of red cabbage that I knew was way too big for what I needed (like, WAY too big…), but it was the smallest head I could find and I was going to make this recipe, dammit!

I made the dish, using just 1/4 of the head of red cabbage, and hated it. Lesson #1: trust your instincts – when it comes to the size of produce and the food you like.

Before we left for our Christmas trip, we of course did our best to eat all the perishable food in the fridge and I managed to use up everything that would have gone bad during the time we were gone…except for the rest of the red cabbage. I couldn’t bring myself to throw so much food away though, so I left it in there, thinking that maybe it would still be good when we returned and I would figure out what to do with it then.

Well, it was. It survived our five-day absence and sat there in the crisper drawer taunting me upon our return. So, this week I have made it my mission to use up the red cabbage that apparently would be left standing, with the Twinkies and cockroaches, after a nuclear bomb.

so much red cabbage

It’s not that I couldn’t find a recipe that used red cabbage, it’s just that I kept thinking back to Lesson #1 and tried to steer clear of recipes that I knew I wouldn’t like given their ingredients and flavor profiles, which, in the world of red cabbage recipes, narrowed things down considerably.

After a half-hearted initial search I decided to do what I have done so many times before when I find myself with a vegetable that I don’t know what to do with, or when I want to do something different and unexpected with it: I turned to Heidi Swanson. You may remember how much I love her cooking from this gushing post a few months ago.

On her blog I found a recipe for a red cabbage salad that seemed, well, weird. But also intriguing.

toasted nuts and salty cheese

I decided to trust Heidi and give it a try. What did I have to lose, after all, besides the cursed red cabbage that I didn’t want to eat anyways?! And I am so glad I did. Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to try new things just because you fail once (or many times!)

The flavors in this salad are definitely not what you likely think of when you think of dishes made with red cabbage. This is, however, precisely why I like it. It is rich, nutty, salty, crunchy and just slightly sweet.

The balance of sweet with the other components is what gets me, I think. Most red cabbage dishes where the cabbage is cooked (as opposed to a raw slaw) are just so sweet, over-the-top sweet. The sweet in this salad is subtle, and it is layered – coming as it does from several different elements: the toasted and caramelized sunflower seeds, the dried fruit, and the balsamic vinegar.

on its way to deliciousness

We ate it served over the nutty, chewy grain farro, and I am sure it would work just as well over another grain such as barley, wheat berries, or even quinoa. I might also try it on top of some creamy polenta. I’ve also been eating it on its own as a light lunch. It is the perfect winter dish and has been particularly comforting upon our return to our cold and wet Seattle home after spending several days in the southern California sun.

And so, Lesson #3: don’t give up and don’t throw away good food (especially a veggie!), because there is always something new and delicious you can do with it. You simply must give this dish a try, whether or not your relationship with red cabbage is as complicated as mine.

winter yumminess

Warm Red Cabbage Salad

Adapted from 101cookbooks
Makes 4-6 servings

The substitutions I made in my version of this recipe were mostly changes of necessity because I didn’t have certain ingredients on hand. The fact that it still came out so well is yet another testament to how wonderful this dish is. As long as you keep your ingredients in the same general vicinity, you can play around with it to your heart’s content – use different nuts, different fruit, different herbs, different cheese, anything that sounds good to you. And let me know if you land on another good combination, I will definitely be making this again soon.

  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 3 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound head of red cabbage (or 3/4 of a larger head, in my case), quartered and cut into thin ribbons
  • 2 tsp fresh thyme, minced
  • 1/2 cup dried tart cherries (or another chopped dried fruit – the original recipe calls for golden raisins)
  • 1 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 3/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • a bit of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to garnish

Roast the sunflower seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until golden brown. Sprinkle on the sugar, and a couple pinches of salt. Stir until the sugar melts and coats the seeds. Transfer the seeds immediately to a plate or bowl so they don’t stick to the pan. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion for 2-3 minutes with a couple pinches of salt. Stir in the garlic and cook for a minute more until fragrant.

Add the cabbage and a few more pinches of salt. Stir and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the cabbage softens up just a touch. You don’t want it to get too soft – it should still be a bit crunchy in the final dish – but how long you need to cook it will depend on how thick/thin your cabbage is sliced so it is difficult to give a precise cooking time.

Once the cabbage is slightly softened, stir in the thyme, dried fruit, and the vinegar. Fold in 1/2 cup of the feta cheese and most of the sunflower seeds, then taste. Season with more salt if needed.

Serve garnished with the remaining feta, sunflower seeds and Parmesan cheese.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

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4 Comments

Filed under Food, Main Course

4 responses to “On life lessons and red cabbage

  1. All good lessons! And I think I’ll give this cabbage salad a try…maybe with regular green cabbage, though!

  2. Pam

    This salad looks sooooooo good! I do like cabbage–all varieties. Molly Stevens has some wonderful cabbage recipes in her book ALL ABOUT BRAISING. Happy New Year, Elizabeth!

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