In winter, my thoughts inevitably turn to Siberia -- and cabbage.
Sure, it's cold in Siberia, but it's really nice there too. Lots of clean land and water, lots of really great people, and lots of great things to eat.
In any Siberian meal, even in the dead of winter, most of the items on the table are things grown, hunted, or gathered from the land. Picture marinated mushrooms, ginseng vodka, canned berries, as well as all sorts of homegrown vegetable and animal products. Providing so much produce in a two-month growing season is no mean feat, and it's the reason that many, if not most, Siberian homes have their own greenhouse.
I was there in March, which was many months after the end of the previous year's growing season. With next year's plants barely up in the greenhouse, one would expect March to be a particularly lean time of year in terms of local pickings. But rarely in my life have I looked forward to meals like I did on that trip. In addition to being experts at producing and procuring food, the Siberians know how to keep it stored. The simple presentation of good-quality food hit consistent bull's eyes in my belly. Things like shredded raw carrots and raw garlic together, next to some pan-fried trout (fresh from the lake), with potatoes cooked with homemade cheese, and beef soup. And I'll never forget watching people plop dollops of mayonnaise into their bowls of soup.
Cabbage evokes Siberia nostalgia in me like little else. Like Siberia, cabbage straddles the line between Europe and Asia, from sauerkraut to Chinese stir-fry. Closer to home, you can get some at the store, cheap.
Allow me to drop some tips for how to use cabbage.
The first tip is none other than the aforementioned mixture of shredded carrots and garlic, with some shredded cabbage mixed in as well and salt to taste. The proportions are entirely up to you. It's great as a side salad, and it's excellent fried in bacon grease -- either as an end unto itself or as a precursor to other things you might add to that pan, like eggs or rice. You can also pack this mixture into jars (make sure the salt content is about two teaspoons per jar) and leave it in a cool place with the lid loosely screwed on. Soon it will start to ferment and bubble and in about 10 days will have turned into a very tasty jar of sauerkraut. Once it stops forming bubbles, tighten the lid. Your gourmet sauerkraut will keep for months.
For a more Asian presentation, here is a recipe for cabbage rolls with a tangy, peanut sauce. Keep in mind that this recipe, while being very good, is still a work in progress. Feel free to modify it in any way you see fit.
Sauté a large onion, diced, in oil. Add half a head of cabbage and cook over medium heat. Once it starts to weep water, put the lid on, but check and stir often. If it starts to dry out, add a little cider vinegar and/or water. Make a mixture of mashed garlic, minced peppers, and curry powder, and stir in a tablespoon, along with two tablespoons of soy sauce.
Get a package of spring-roll wraps, which are available in most stores. Follow the directions for reconstituting them in water, and wrap the cabbage mixture into rolls, folding the ends toward the middle before rolling.
For the sauce, sauté a medium onion, diced, in oil. Add a tablespoon of tamarind paste, if you can get your hands on some. (If not, proceed anyway, and maybe add something else that's tangy.) Add a diced hot pepper or two, four cloves of garlic, chopped, and one cubic inch of ginger, grated. Finally, stir in 1/4 cup of soy sauce and a half-cup of peanut butter. Cook 10 minutes on low/medium heat.
Arrange the cabbage rolls on a plate and pour the sauce over the rolls. They go great with vodka.