Among the oft-neglected cookbooks on my shelf is a big, light green volume called Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. It's by Marcella Hazan, the justly venerated Italian cookbook writer notorious for her particularity, her precision, and her deep understanding of proper Italian cuisine. While the recipes reflect that precision (you can practically hear her preemptively chiding you for matching pasta with the wrong sauce), some of them are really quite simple. Case in point: smothered cabbage. A whole head of cabbage is shredded thinly, then braised low and slow with olive oil, onion and garlic, salt and pepper, and a shake of red wine vinegar. To say it's simple is to understate it a bit.
If you have extra cabbage (though really, why would you? I made a double recipe so I wouldn't be forced to choose), Hazan offers a modest recipe for Rice and Smothered Cabbage Soup. It's basically chicken broth, rice, the cabbage, and a dusting of permigiano reggiano cheese. A one-pot wonder.
The night I made the cabbage was dark and rainy -- nothing like the beautiful spring weather that's suddenly appeared this week. My sweatshirt and I were in the mood for something substantive and comforting, but also a bit luxurious. No sweat: I used basically the same ingredients in Hazan's soup to riff a bit and make risotto. If you're one of those people who think risotto is mighty difficult, hark! It's just not. Watch as I spell out the instructions in less than 50 words:
Sweat onions in oil. Add rice and salt. When hot, add wine. Then add broth by the ladelful, stirring intermittently. replenish broth as rice absorbs it. Taste at 12 minutes. Adjust for salt. When cooked but still al dente, with thickness of polenta, remove from heat. Add cheese. Eat.
And that's almost exactly what I did -- except that instead of wine, I added a couple tablespoons red wine vinegar. And I added the cabbage at the end. People, would you please just make this already? It's a miraculously luxurious dish made from downright humble ingredients. I guarantee it won't disappoint.
Smothered Cabbage Risotto inspired by Marcella Hazan
For the cabbage:
* 2 pounds green or Savoy cabbage * 1/2 cup chopped onion * 1/4 cup olive oil * 1 tablespoon chopped garlic * salt * freshly ground pepper * 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Clean cabbage and discard tough outer layers. Slice cabbage in half lengthwise, and shred as finely as possible using either a sharp knife or a mandoline. Be sure to remove the inner core of the cabbage -- it's too tough to cut.
Heat oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring regularly, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add garlic. When garlic takes on some color, add cabbage. Using tongs, turn cabbage once or twice to incorporate it with the oil and onions, and cook until wilted.
Add vinegar, salt, and pepper. Turn heat to lowest possible setting, cover pot, and cook at least 1.5 hours, stirring occasionally, until soft, tender, and practically melted. If at any point the cabbage looks dry or it looks like the bottom may burn, add a tablespoon of water to moisten. When cabbage is fully cooked, taste and adjust for salt, pepper, and vinegar. You want the cabbage just a very little bit tangy -- mostly sweet and soft and buttery. When cabbage is ready, transfer to a bowl and wipe out pot.
For the Risotto:
* olive oil * 1.5 cups Arborio rice * 6 cups homemade chicken or vegetable stock, simmering on the stove * half a recipe or more of the Smothered Cabbage * 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, divided * 2 tablespoons butter * 1/3 cup parmesan cheese
Swirl a couple tablespoons of olive oil in the same pot you used to make the cabbage. Heat over medium. Add rice and use a wooden spoon to stir and evenly coat the kernels with the olive oil. When rice is hot to the touch, add 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar and 1 ladle of stock. Lower heat to medium-low and cook, stirring continuously, until stock evaporates. Add more starch and continue stirring. As you continue adding stock and stirring, the rice will emit some of its starch, which will thicken the risotto and make it silky. Around 10 minutes into cooking, add two ladles of cabbage. Stir to incorporate and continue stirring and adding stock as before. At around 13 minutes, begin tasting the risotto; adjust seasoning and add more cabbage if desired. Continue cooking, adding stock as necessary, until rice is done but ever so slightly al dente. Add some or all of remaining tablespoon red wine vinegar to add slight tang. Off the heat, add butter and parmesan cheese. Stir to incorporate and serve immediately.