(eGGsalad column #23)
by Prof. Steve Holzinger
When I got up today, it was a cold, steely gray, late Autumn morning, with a light drizzle that frosted the trees silver. As I went outside, I noticed that the wicker basket of small pumpkins and multicolor corns, put out for decoration, had been visited. One small pumpkin had been chewed, and the ears of corn were missing half their kernels. It appeared that what for me was art, was bounty for the squirrels. They enjoyed the buffet in a way I had not thought of. To them it was money in the bank. I took the basket inside, and put the remaining corn and pumpkins under the tree, where our little gray friends could grow plump on them, or squirrel them away, against the cold winter so close at hand.
To me, late Autumn's bounty is to enjoy thoughts of Winter vegetables. Cozy thoughts of safely stored away cabbages and squashes and potatoes, Brussels sprouts, turnips, roasted chestnuts, walnuts, filberts, dried fruits and hearty soups, breads, and pies. Oven smells and steamy pots on the simmer, and the cold winter locked outside. Cooks have the best of it in Winter.
I remember that the first chef I worked for used to pickle whole cabbages in barrels, to make stuffed cabbage. He said that it was the only way to get the 'right' sour taste, just vinegar alone wouldn't do it. He wasted nothing of the cabbage. The cores and coarse ribs of the cabbage were chopped up fine, and placed on the bottom of the heavy square aluminum GI roast pans we used to make the stuffed cabbage. The coarse outer leaves were used to cover the stuffed cabbage rolls in the oven as they cooked in the sauce poured over them. The protective leaves would burn, but the stuffed cabbage wouldn't. I used to stand the entire day, stuffing and rolling the cabbage. Today, I freeze the cabbage to get it soft, and use sauerkraut in the sauce to get that 'right' sort of sour taste. Golden raisins and Turkish apricots supply the sweet.
As I think of it, historically speaking, in Europe pickled cabbage played an important nutritional role in Winter, as it is a fine source of ascorbic acid, vitamin C. Sour salt, citric acid, is another ingredient that was often used to make the 'right' sour taste.
In 1987 I was teaching in the Peoples Republic of China, at Jiao Tung University in Shanghai. The newspapers were full of a headline story about a shortage of salt in the stores. In late autumn, when the cabbage harvest came in, every family would fill great stoneware crocks with salted cabbages for the winter. People were very upset not to be able to get enough salt to pickle their winter cabbage supply. It seems that salted cabbages have great survival value in more places than just Europe.
I did a study of the shrimp farming industry in Liezhow, where every meal had a large steaming bowl of Choy, what we call Napa cabbage, which grew to an enormous size there. As a visitor, I learned to finish every bit of what seemed like a pound of cabbage per meal, as my hosts never left a shred in their bowls. Would I care for more? "Just a little bit, thank you, it is delicious but I am so full." I replied. I had a reputation as a 'heavy spoon' to uphold.
In Korea, as well, preserved cabbages are a winter staple that have the status of a national dish. I refer of course to Kimchi, without which no Korean meal is considered complete. I work for a Korean multinational company, so over the years I have learned a great deal about the pleasures of Kimchi. Once you get used to its stimulation of the taste buds, meals seem dull without it. A good Korean restaurant like Woo Chun in Flushing (and Manhattan) starts the meal with a dozen plates of all sorts of pickled vegetable hors d'oeuvres. Moon sang-hee says (soc.culture.Korean) "My Grandma says that you can make Kimchi with all kinds of vegetables like radishes, cabbage, cucumbers, peppers and green onions." I have never made it, being satisfied with what I can buy in Flushing, where there is a large Korean community. I have a great book about Kimchi*, so maybe one day...(see recipes at Kim Chee and Kimchi.
Cabbage was a frequent favorite at the Jager Haus. In the cellar, we had cavernous walk-in refrigerators, with rows of wooden barrels containing the work of Otto, the kitchen man, a person short of stature and short of words. When I would tell him that the chef wanted something, he would grumble and mutter and curse under his breath, and waddle off to get whatever the chef wanted. I never saw him outside of the bowels of the Jager Haus, and I often wondered, whimsically, if he was a German spy from World War I, that they forgot to tell the war was over. His almost twin worked for Herbst Strudel, on Second Avenue, with an inch or so of Camel cigarette dangling from his lip. He peeled the apples for the strudels our guests loved so well, but once every month or so, I would face the firing squad because of him. The boss would rant and rave! It was always one of his good friends that got a cigarette butt in the strudel, and I would be dispatched, post haste, to Second Avenue, to complain, where with much wringing of hands, I would be promised that this would never happen again.1
Otto had barrels of savory red cabbage, and sauerkraut cooked with bacon. Over the years, I have developed my own version of these winter treats, but like Otto, I start with lardoons of bacon, cut from a slab, rind and all, to fry and soften the cabbage in the bacon fat. Then red wine for red, and white wine for kraut, which I then bought in cases of four one gallons, and which got used at an alarming rate. I asked the chef about it, and told me to keep my mouth shut, unless I wanted to get on the wrong side of Otto, which judging by how gingerly the chef seemed to treat with our troll, was not the best idea. From his barrels flowed not only our spicy red cabbage and kraut, but many other staples for the menu. It was he that fried tons of onions, and simmered them in brown gravy for the Vienerzweibelroastbraten, a tender sirloin weighing almost a pound, broiled to perfection, just a degree less than you ordered it, then briefly smothered in fried onions and dark brown gravy, with freshly mashed potatoes, ever so slightly lumpy, and perfumed with fresh dill. A side order of fried onions and gravy never appeared on the menu, yet it was frequently ordered by many of our "regulars," who would also routinely double up on the potatoes, without ever having to remind the waiters.
Haute cuisine, for us, was never haughty! It was Otto who broiled the thick endcuts of pork loin on a fork, like hot-dogs, over the candy stove2. These he would plunge into the cauldron of sauerkraut and simmer them till they were falling off the bone. He would bring me a plate with the kraut and a chop. "Gives a good taste, ja?" and he would do his version of a smile. I would pass him a few cold bottles of Ruperts beer, (which was a local brand we didn't sell, so I could keep it in my refrigerator to use for "tips" to the other employees who I needed to help me) which is why I was so honored. Simmering left-over cooked meats in sauerkraut, like cooked pork, chicken and sausages is quite common in German and Polish cooking. In Polish, it is called a bigos, and has been lifted to a high art, with rich portions of duck or goose. Actually, it is my favorite way to eat duck. The white Peking duck, favored on Long Island where I live, is really too fatty, and a bigos is the ideal place to use this rich fat.
Winter vegetables that store the best, and ones that I am very fond of, are of the yellow squash family, who are all relatives of the cucumber. The family resemblance is easier to see in the vine than the fruit. Pumpkins, butternut and hubbard squash, acorn squash and the like all keep well for the winter, if you store them in a cool dry place. My favorite pumpkin is the cheese pumpkin, which has a tan skin the same color as the butternut squash, which is my favorite squash. The Jack O'Lantern pumpkins that we use at Halloween are not as tasty. Mine often stays out until the frost (or this year the squirrels) get to it, and then I toss it on the compost heap, which once turned out to be a grave mistake. That Spring, my son planted a garden with great care, working in lots of nice rich compost, which we had in plenty. It seems that the frost did not kill the pumpkin seeds, because giant killer vines took over the entire garden. We had pumpkin, but little else. I was afraid to go there, the vines were so big!
Much of what we call canned or frozen pumpkin, I believe is hubbard squash, which grows to horrific size. I greatly prefer my veggies smaller than me. Never the less, I do love pumpkin pie, and pumpkin cheese cake, and I even got a great recipe for pumpkin meringue ice-cream pie from Chef JJ Brooks (his grandmothers recipe) from Chefs and Cooks on the Internet (firstname.lastname@example.org) where I hang out to chew the culinary fat every night. Pastry Chef AmyCakes, from Cambridge Mass, told me how she makes pumpkin cheese cake, and I was amazed! She just blends half and half her pumpkin pie filling recipe and her cheese cake recipe. "They both set in the oven," she told me, "why shouldn't it work?" I guess so, but it wouldn't have occurred to me! She did give me her recipe for Pumpkin Pie filling, which is a real winner. It uses canned pumpkin, which I guess keeps best of all! She said she never uses anything else but canned pumpkin, and has gotten no complaints so far. So whatever works, works!
* Kimchi A Korean Health Food, Lee & Lee, Hollym. This book has many recipes, and is profusely illustrated with step by step photos, and is very well written. About $10, and well worth it.
©1997, Steve K. Holzinger. All rights reserved.
This page modified February 2007
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