The cabbage noodle connection

One of the reasons I enjoy food shopping is that it's an opportunity to learn about new dishes or ingredients or gain a different perspective on familiar ones from other food-loving shoppers.

cabbage 88 (photo credit: )
cabbage 88
(photo credit: )
One of the reasons I enjoy food shopping is that it's an opportunity to learn about new dishes or ingredients or gain a different perspective on familiar ones from other food-loving shoppers. At a popular market, I happened to talk recently with Hungarian-born Vera Meisels about noodles. When she spoke enthusiastically of a favorite dish of hers, noodles with cabbage, I was reminded of how much I like this dish, too. The recipe sounds ridiculously simple - you saute cabbage and mix it with cooked noodles. Its charm lies in the seductive sweetness the cabbage acquires as it cooks. When sauteing the cabbage, Vera recommends using high heat, like for a stir-fry, and says to keep frying the cabbage until it turns light brown. She feels that the care and patience you take in sauteing the cabbage is the secret to making this Hungarian specialty delicious. As she put it, in her colorful way: "Do not move away from the stove or you will have steamed cabbage and that tastes lousy, so stay put!" In spite of its humble components, this cabbage-noodle concoction is so popular that it is claimed by cooks in several countries as their own. Polish people love it, but not everyone gives the dish the same attention that Vera does. Some simply boil the cabbage, mix it with cooked noodles and bake the mixture in a casserole coated with buttered breadcrumbs. A more sumptuous Polish version calls for mixing the noodles with butter-sauteed cabbage and onions, then enriching the mixture with sour cream. Darra Goldstein, the author of A la Russe (Random House, 1983), prefers the Russian style - she sautes the cabbage with onion and tart apples in plenty of butter, then adds cooked noodles and poppy seeds. Unlike Vera, she finds that covering the pan to steam the cabbage enhances the dish. But eastern Europeans and Ashkenazim are not the only ones who thought of partnering pasta with cabbage; in East Asia you'll find plenty of examples as well. Filipinos are fond of cabbage and pair it with noodles of different types - wheat noodles, rice sticks or bean threads (mung bean noodles), often including a protein element as well. One of their specialties is noodles with stir-fried Chinese cabbage. It's basically the same idea as the Hungarian dish, but according to Karen Hulene Bartell, the author of Fine Filipino Food (Hippocrene, 2003), it also includes onion, celery and chicken and is flavored with soy sauce. At a local Filipino restaurant, I had a variation made of sauteed cabbage with rice noodles and strips of carrot, green onion and beef. A similar Japanese dish, yaki soba, is composed of stir-fried noodles with shredded cabbage, meat and a spicy sauce. Meatless noodle dishes from the Far East resemble the Hungarian noodle medley more closely. Cabbage figures prominently in vegetable lo mein, a wheat noodle dish familiar in Chinese restaurants, which is flavored with garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil. For her Singapore-inspired vegetarian noodles, Nina Simonds, the author of Asian Noodles (Hearst, 1997), utilizes mostly cabbage and onions, sauteed with red peppers, garlic, ginger, curry and soy sauce. One of my favorite dishes at Korean delis is mung bean noodles with sesame oil and vegetables - often cabbage, carrot and green onions. You might wonder, what about the pasta lovers' paradise, Italy? After all, Italians eat cabbage, too. But here the combination is not as common, although it's natural that people who cook pasta so often would combine it with just about every vegetable. Indeed, the cabbage-pasta pair does appear on some Italian tables. In her book, In Nonna's Kitchen (HarperCollins, 1997), Carol Field presents a dish from northern Italy made from buckwheat noodles, potatoes and cabbage, tossed with garlic butter and baked with generous amounts of fontina and Parmesan cheeses - definitely cabbage with an Italian flavor. NOODLES WITH SLOW-COOKED CABBAGE Although Vera prefers to fry cabbage over high heat, I find that stewing it at length over low heat has its merits, as the cabbage acquires a delectable sweetness and is less likely to burn. Some cooks enhance it with several spoonfuls of sugar, while others add onions, which also turn sweet as they cook with the cabbage. To saute the cabbage, Vera uses vegetable oil so that her dish is parve and a suitable accompaniment for fish or meat. Some Hungarian cooks use chicken fat, goose fat or butter, each of which imparts a distinctive flavor. 1 kg. green cabbage (about 3⁄4 of a large head), cored 1⁄4 cup vegetable oil 2 large onions, diced salt and freshly ground pepper 1 to 2 tsp. sugar (optional) 225 gr. broad noodles or square-shaped pasta Shred cabbage with a knife. Heat oil in a very large skillet or stew pan. Add onions, cabbage, salt and pepper. Saute over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon sugar. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring often, for 30 minutes, or until very tender. Check often; if vegetables brown too fast or pan becomes very dry, add a few tablespoons boiling water. When vegetables are tender, if they are not yet brown, uncover and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until lightly browned. If you like, add another teaspoon sugar and cook vegetables another 2 or 3 minutes to blend it in. Cook noodles uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat for 7 minutes or until just tender. Drain well and add to cabbage. Toss over low heat for 1 or 2 minutes. Taste for salt, pepper and sugar. Serve hot. Makes 6 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins) and Sensational Pasta (HP Books).