Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Kool and the Car Salesman: Braised Italian Cabbage with Mushrooms, Gnocchi, and Cannellini

To say that Michel has a prodigious memory is actually an understatement. It’s almost savant-like in its scope and depth. I often tell him that I wonder how he can carry his head around “with all that stuff in it.” Some researchers label this type of person a Super Memorizer (yes, that’s a thing).  Obviously this innate skill has served him well as a violin dealer; he can identify a fiddle from a fuzzy photo or a PBS broadcast of the NY Philharmonic even if he has seen the instrument only once many years ago. But—in addition to naming the instrument he can also recall its provenance, including what the owners paid, who wrote the certificates, how it sounds compared to other violins, damage/repairs, etc. This same alarming ability also applies to violin bows, by the way. Michel can rattle off the names of international music competition winners over many decades the way some guys recite World Series stats. It’s not just the first prize winners, either; it’s second, third, fourth, fifth place along with where they made their solo debuts, who conducted the concerts, etc. It’s exhausting (and scary) just to think about how much this man knows. One of his former violin-dealing associates teased him, saying: “Ask Michel what time it is and he’ll tell you how to build a watch.” Before you get the idea that his brain is filled with music-related data exclusively, let me add that his highly developed recall ability also applies to cars, food, historical figures and events, painters and sculptors, cigars, films and books, fountain pens, travel, etc. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a new anecdote or learn something unexpected from Michel’s Massive Memory Bank.

When he decided to make this cabbage dish a few days ago, Michel related an interesting story about one particular man he recalls from his childhood. To provide a little context, keep in mind that Holland has long been the destination for many Indonesian and Moroccan immigrants (among others), hence the pervasive presence of foods from those cultures in The Netherlands to this day.  Michel’s parents had an Indonesian friend, Mr. Mehlbaum, who would visit from time to time.  Mr. Mehlbaum spoke with an Indonesian accent and he liked to express his opinions about classical music (which young Michel silently disagreed with based on his own music study and concert-going experiences).  Another common topic of conversation among the adults was food and Mr. Mehlbaum also liked to talk about Indonesian cuisine.  Michel recalls hearing him describe in mouth-watering detail an Indonesian stuffed cabbage dish that sounded just great, wondering why they couldn’t try it at home.  It wasn’t just some pitiful stuffed cabbage leaves à la Betty Crocker Cookbook; Mehlbaum was talking about an entire head of cabbage stuffed with all kinds of goodness and cooked whole. Why not? Well, aside from the limited cooking skills of his mother (previously noted), Michel’s father, Eduard, hated Indonesian food.  It turns out he only thought he didn’t like it because later on he changed his mind.  It also turns out that Eduard was considering buying an inexpensive car and Michel surmised that Mr. Mehlbaum’s unspoken motive for visiting his parents was trying to sell Eduard a pricey car.  This suspicion was confirmed when, at the ripe old age of eight, Michel took the train by himself from The Hague to Amsterdam to attend a special car show. (Parenting gets tiresome after one or two kids, so the youngest generally have more liberties, right?) Among the exhibits there Michel spotted Mr. Mehlbaum and put two and two together.  Eduard eventually bought a used car from another family acquaintance. 

End of Mehlbaum story. On to cabbage and gnocchi.  Part of the blog post process for a big nerd like me includes searching for information about the ingredients in a dish, so here’s some trivia you may opt to appreciate or disregard: The Dutch word for cabbage is kool (pronounced “cole”) and koolsla is Dutch for cabbage salad.  Now you know how we get to coleslaw which, sadly, some people think is “cold slaw” because it’s served cold.  We all know at least one of those people who is blissfully unconcerned about word choices.  If you think that cabbage is lacking nutritional value, you are mistaken; it has the same benefits as its cruciferous cousins (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc.)—Vitamins C and K as well as a host of antioxidants. Another found tidbit has to do with the origin of the word gnocchi, the little Italian dumplings.  The name derives from nocca, which translates to “knuckles”—and one knuckle is just about the size of one little dumpling.  I was hesitant to look at the nutrition info for gnocchi because I figured a pasta dumpling filled with potato or ricotta is probably not so healthful.  Some things it’s just better not to know.  Michel described this braised cabbage dish as “real Italian country food”—simple and delicious. 

Braised Italian Cabbage with Mushrooms, Gnocchi, and Cannellini

You will need:
8 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
½ a medium to large cabbage
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup pitted seasoned olives
5 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon capers
1 teaspoon chopped dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup vegetable broth
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
16 oz. package of gnocchi
Optional non-vegan topping: grated parmesan

Cut the core out of the cabbage, chop into quasi-julienne pieces, then set aside.

In a 3-quart skillet:
Heat olive oil then add sliced mushrooms, letting them start to cook while you chop the garlic, capers and olives together.

Add chopped capers, garlic, olives to skillet.  Add dried rosemary, tarragon, and pepper flakes, stirring gently to mix.
Allow the mushrooms and seasonings to cook for about ten minutes before adding cabbage and vegetable broth to the skillet.
Cover and cook over low to medium heat for half an hour.

Meanwhile, bring lightly salted water to a boil in your favorite pasta cooking vessel and prepare the gnocchi per package directions.  While the gnocchi cooks, add drained/rinsed cannellini to the skillet.

Replace cover and tend to the gnocchi, making sure it doesn’t overcook. Important: Before you drain the pasta water, add about ¼ cup to the skillet to act as a binding agent for the dish. 

Drain gnocchi, add to cabbage/mushroom/cannellini mixture and stir gently to make sure all your ingredients get acquainted. 

If you like, top your finished dish with grated parmesan.  Michel likes to put the skillet on the table and serve our plates straight from the pan.  No matter how you serve it, this country-style food makes a perfect autumn meal.