Lets just say they can come in very useful those tough, dark, crimpled and otherwise discardable outer leaves. Blanch until supple, pat dry, chill and apply as necessary. Brassica in brassiere – very effective. I also lay a well- chilled leaf across my forehead the other day! Vegetal relief after an infuriating hour of miscommunication at the commune and a series of thwarted attempts to get things done. I’m also convinced my forehead looks a little less lined now. Next time my whole face. But enough of such talk.
I was, I’m told, an unfussy child when it came to food. Extremely unfussy and pretty voracious by all accounts! The child that ate everything, even cabbage. Especially cabbage. Unswayed by the pertinacious odour when boiled – hilarious – unphased by the anguish and ridicule of my friends, undeterred even by the attempts of the school dinner ladies to boil the brassica to death, I really liked cabbage. Plain boiled with masses of best butter, salt and pepper was how we ate it at home: a tasty, good-natured, only slightly sulphurous companion to the sausages, mash topped pie or meaty braise. Cabbage was the fourth player in a colcannonesque quartet along with mash, butter and bacon. There was a significant Chou farci in France when I was 14. Cabbage even survived the all or nothing years, the obsessive and disordered ones, when in an attempt to quash all voracious appetites I avoided, eliminated or forsake almost everything. But not cabbage. There was no butter of course, which meant the cabbage wasn’t nearly as much fun, but there was cabbage nonetheless.
Gillian Riley notes that cabbage, cavolo, Brassica oleraccea has been around for thousands of years and that many of the types we recognise today were known by the Ancient Romans. She also reminds us that the vast Brassica family – which like most vast families is divided into many groups – includes cauliflower and broccoli. Modern Romans, at least the ones I know, not least this 77cm one, are devoted to broccoli particularly their prized broccolo romanesco. Cabbage, be it the handsome savoy, the darker, stronger cavolo nero or the tight, round white cabbage is cooked less in Rome. But when it is cooked, it’s done so with Gusto.
In Volpetti they cook dark, leafy cabbage as they do many of their green vegetables: twice! First boiled until tender but still resistant and then ripassato (re-passed) in a saute pan with a fearless quantity of olive oil infused with garlic.. Twice as nice. They also cook white cabbage in the pan with olive oil, braising it really, letting it cook slowly in the vapours from its own escaping moisture. Sometimes they add cooked cannellini beans – starchy and comely – to this smothered cabbage which is good and something I often make at home for lunch. Volpetti also does a nice farro and bean soup that includes plenty of sliced white cabbage. I’ve eaten more cabbage in Toscana. Most notably the dark, sultry, Javier Bardem of Brassica: cavolo nero, much-loved and a fundamental part of Ribollita, a substantial bean and vegetable soup, re-boiled and then served over the saltless bread of the region. Minestrone too, greatly benefits from a hefty handful of sliced savoy or cavolo nero. And then there’s stuffed cabbage.
Not in Rome though, I’ve never had stuffed cabbage in Rome. I’ve never had stuffed cabbage in Italy as it happens! Which makes sense, as apparently it’s not really typical to any region! Feel free to put me right? That said, I have several recipes of Italian origin I’ve bookmarked over the years: a savoy cabbage and sausage bake from the Silver spoon, a recipe torn from a magazine for involtini, an intriguing Northern Italian recipe for cabbage loaf, Giorgio Locatelli’s Mondeghini. And then of course there is my brother’s advice
On Thursday morning having re-read the majestic oak tree cake post, missing my brother (what a dame) and with a longing for something warm, tasty and – to put it bluntly – porky, I gathered together the various threads, books and pages and came up with savoy cabbage leaves stuffed with sausage et all and cooked in tomato sauce.
You need a savoy cabbage, look for one whose dark wrinkled leaves are firm and pert and whose paler head is unblemished and solid. Having removed the very dark, tough outer leaves – discard them, braise them for six hours, fashion them into a scarf or use them for something else – carefully pull away nine very nice leaves. It may help to cut them away from the base with a small sharp knife. Blanch the nine leaves briefly in well-salted boiling water, just long enough to render then supple and mailable. You also need pork sausages, best quality ones. I use Italian Luganega which is particularly good, lean and accommodating. Bread soaked in milk, parmesan, finely chopped rosemary and sage are mixed with the sausage meat to make the stuffing. Hands are best.
There are entire web sites and weeklong summer schools dedicated to cabbage parcel rolling. Overwhelmed, I just made it up, basing my naive cabbage rolling on baby swaddling, which Luca wasn’t very keen on, which was probably something to do with my shoddy technique. I imagined the ball of stuffing was Luca and placed it in the bottom third of the blanched leaf. I then brought the sides of the leaf in and tucked them round the ball snugly. This – you might be relieved to learn – is where the baby swaddling parallels end! I didn’t (even in the most sleep deprived and peculiar moments ) roll my baby up as I did the cabbage leaf round the sausage ball, that is, into a completely sealed little parcel. I can hear you clicking away to those tutorials.
The sauce is simple, a large tin of peeled plum tomatoes, passed through the mouli! Have you bought one yet? You should, they are terrific and indispensable. A heavy-based pan with a well-fitting lid is important as the parcels cook in both the simmering sauce and the hot steamy vapors that rise seductively from below. Tuck the parcels sardine-like in the pan, there should be enough sauce to come about half way up the parcels. Cook the parcels gently for about 25 minus, turn them, replace the lid and let them cook for another 25 miners. I turned them again and then let them bubble for a final ten minutes without the lid.
We ate our parcels with a half butter/ half olive oil mash which was pretty tasty. Tasty and complete. While helping myself to another parcel and another spoonful of mash, I noted that this is a meal in which my two kitchen worlds collide in a most gratifying way. Sausages, buttered cabbage, mash and tomato sauce (Heinz I’m afraid, it was England in 1979) reinterpreted in my Roman kitchen. Cavolo verza, lugagana, pane, latte, Parmigiano, salvia, rosemarino, sugo di pomodoro soaked, amassed, moulded, rolled and simmered into something I’ve called Mondeghini in sugo. Or should it be Mondeghini al sugo? Al or in ? Who knows? Certainly not me! With our parcels, mash and sauce we had a glass of very average white. Red would have been better, but we’d polished off a whole bottle the night before and it seemed indecent to open a new bottle for Thursday lunch.
The two remaining parcels were even better that evening. The stuffing seemed to have come together. I noted more obvious things: how the milk soaked bread gives the stuffing a soft, billowy quality, how well rosemary and sage flirt with pork, that the sauce was thicker and richer than at lunch time, what a good couple cabbage and sausage make. Next time I’ll make my parcels in the morning, let them rest and then re-heat them gently at lunchtime. I ate the two parcels leaning against the kitchen counter with the glass of wine I wish I’d had at lunch time – this. I am not sure it was entirely appropriate, I should ask my wise Friend. Damn nice though. Have a good week.
Stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce Mondeghini in/al sugo*
- 1 large savoy cabbage
- 200 g white bread, crusts cut away
- 150 ml whole milk
- 300 g good quality plain pork sausages, skins removed.
- small sprig of sage, finely chopped
- small sprig of rosemary, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp freshly grated parmesan
- freshly ground black pepper
- 500 g peeled plum tomatoes
- 30 ml / 2 tbsp olive oil
- clove of garlic, peeled and gently squashed with the back of a knife.
Discard the very tough outer cabbage leaves (or use them for something else) and choose 9 nice, large inner leaves. Blanch these leaves in boiling salted water for a few moments until supple. Drain the leaves, pat them dry and then spread them out on a clean tea towel.
Soak the bread in the milk – mashing it gently with a wooden spoon – until it forms a soft thick paste. Mix the bread paste with the sausage meat, finely chopped rosemary and sage, parmesan, a grind of pepper and a pinch of salt. Hands are best.
Make the parcels: If necessary pare away some of the fat stalk so the leaf lies flat. Using your hands, make a ball of sausage mixture roughly the size of a golf-ball and sit it about a third of the way up from the base of the leaf. Bring the bottom third up and over the ball, tuck the two sides of the leaf in and then roll the sausage filled bottom third over the top two-thirds of the leaf tucking the leaf back around the whole parcel. Secure with a toothpick.
Pass the tinned tomatoes through a mouli, sieve or simply chop them roughly while still in the tin with scissors. In a heavy- based saute pan with a lid, warm the oil and then saute the garlic until golden and fragrant (be very careful not to burn it.) Add the tomatoes, stir and bring the sauce to a gentle boil. Once boiling, lower the heat until the sauce simmers and place the parcels carefully into the sauce.
Cover the pan and gently simmer the parcels for 25 minutes, turn them, replace the lid and simmer for another 25 minutes. Remove the lid and simmer for another 10 mines so the sauce reduces a little Let the parcels sit for 15 minutes before serving with mashed potato.
*Just to clarify – As I noted in the post I have used Giorgio Locatelli’s rather unusual name for this recipe (and spelling) Mondeghini. This word is usually reserved for polpette (meatballs) in Lombardia as is the word mondeghili. But as I was pretty faithful to Giorgio’s recipe for stuffed cabbage from his book Made in Italy, it seemed appropriate I used his word. His Grandmothers actually, so possibly a a regional/dialect word from nearly 45 years ago! Any other information or thoughts about this word are very welcome. R