Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cabbage, Potato, and Sausage Casserole

It's cold outside around the country. Here in New Orleans it's in the high 40s, which is tantamount to blizzard temperatures in this area, and that always calls for something warm, savory, filling and delicious. Cabbage is a great winter vegetable, but not something that everyone likes. Oftentimes cabbage, cooked on its own, gives off an uncomfortable smell and, if done wrong, an unpleasant taste. If you have someone in your family who is wary of cabbage, this is the perfect dish to make them a convert.

I originally got this recipe from The Silver Spoon, an amazing cookbook for anyone interested in Italian cuisine. A lot of the recipes are basic and use only a handful of ingredients. (A personal favorite is the pork loin and grape juice recipe.) The recipe in the book was titled "Baked Savoy Cabbage". While this is a great recipe, I'm never content with following the rules so I spruced it up a bit.

The original Silver Spoon recipe for this called for cabbage, sausage, tomato paste, sausage, and cheese. I found it to be colorless (mostly red) and, sadly, watery. Like most leafy vegetables, cabbage retains a lot of water. When baked and allowed to cool some of this liquid is reabsorbed, but I found that adding potatoes gave it some substance and the red onions gave it a nice range of color.

  • 1 head of cabbage
  • 1 medium red onion
  • 1 lb. of fresh (raw) sausage
  • 1-2 cups of cream
  • 5-6 small potatoes, scrubbed clean
  • shredded mozzarella, or similar cheese
  • 1 6oz. can tomato paste
  • salt
  • pepper
These are not complicated ingredients. This recipe relies heavily on the sausage carrying a lot of the spices, so make sure you have a sausage that you like. I used some of my homemade chicken sausage, which had spinach, sun dried tomatoes, feta cheese, and garlic. Other than that, the only spices used are salt and pepper. If you find a good store brand sausage that you like you'll be set.

Start by boiling a pot of water. While this is going, cut and core the cabbage. I always remove the leaves from the outside of the cabbage, but if you're determined to use them then by all means go ahead and keep them. Separate each layer of cabbage, reserving the tightly bound inner leaves. Wash them well using a salad spinner or by hand in the sink.

Thinly slice the red onion and the potatoes. As you can see, I used different types of potatoes. As a rule of thumb, I use whatever I have handy. In this case I had some small russets and some even smaller red potatoes. The thinner you can slice them the better: feel free to use a food slicer, mandolin, or any other piece of equipment you have. I did these by hand, mostly because dragging out the food slicer meant yet another thing to clean.

By now your pot of water should be at a rolling boil. Toss in the cabbage and blanch for about 5 minutes. You don't want to cook them completely, only soften them so they are easy to deal with and help bring some of that bright green color out. Empty into a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water to stop the cooking process. Set aside to drain.

Heat a pan with some oil. I have a wonderful little oil mister I picked up from Williams-Sonoma that allows me to mix some herbs with the oil to give it a little flavor. (This bottle has rosemary and crushed red pepper.) Give the pan a good spray, then remove the sausage from the casings and cook over a medium flame for a few minutes, making sure to crumble into small pieces. Add in the entire can of tomato paste, and then fill the same can with water and empty into the pan. Mix thoroughly until a thick sauce is formed. Give it a taste -- this is a good time to add some salt or pepper or any other seasonings that might be missing from the sausage. Set aside.

Take a large, deep baking dish and coat with oil. I used my same spray oil, but you are welcome to oil a paper towel and run it along the sides. In all honesty, I don't know if this makes a difference, given the amount of liquid released while cooking but I suppose it's good practice.

We'll be constructing the casserole like a lasagna. Start with a layer of cabbage. Top it with some salt and pepper. Next, spread a thin layer of onion.

Cover this with a layer of potatoes: if you're using different types, make sure to spread them out.

Top this with a layer of sausage, and top this with shredded cheese. Repeat this whole process.

When you get to your last layer of sausage, top with more cabbage, then spread the leftover cheese on top. There is no real science to the construction of this. I found that this order (cabbage -> onions -> potatoes -> sausage -> cheese -> repeat) was easy to arrange (especially the potatoes being a "base" to spread the sausage) but feel free to do as you please. I also took the sausage and divided it into three equal portions in order to make three layers, but no pressure! It's only food: do what you like!

After everything is arranged, pour a cup or two of heavy cream (or half and half, as I used) evenly over the top. I'd shy away from milk, especially lowfat milks. You may end up with a very liquidy end product, but that's your call.

Cover and place in the oven for about 45 minutes. Use a fork or a skewer to test if it is done. Your potatoes are your indicator: if you can't easily pierce a layer of potatoes, then it needs more time. Once it is done, remove the cover and return the oven until the cheese on top begins to brown.

Anyone will tell you that for any good piece of meat you should always let it rest after it cooks to allow the meat to reabsorb some of the liquid. In much the same way, this dish is best served after it has had a chance to cool slightly. The cabbage and sausage/sauce, combined with the cream, will release a lot of liquids in the cooking process and letting it cool so the cabbage and potatoes can reabsorb those liquids makes a huge difference. This is the sort of dish that needs no sides, and makes amazing leftovers. Even cold it tastes great!

As I said, this is a great dish for people who might not like cabbage. As it cools, the cabbage absorbs the flavor of the potatoes and the sausage and ceases to taste like feet, as it often does on its own. Make sure you get a good, flavorful sausage. You're welcome to use any ground meat, but make sure you add a good amount of herbs and spices, as this recipe is pretty basic in that department.

I want this, more than anything, to be a lesson in adventure. Find a good, basic recipe, like those in The Silver Spoon, and make it your own. While we might need instructions to construct Ikea furniture there is no reason why we can't add a favorite flavor or ingredient to a recipe. My music composition professor once told me, "You can't write anything new; it's already been done. All we can do is find a new way to present it." While I don't agree with that wholeheartedly, it gives some thought to things like cooking. If being adventuresome is intimidating, think of it as just finding a new way to present something that someone has already done.


So, you had some leftover cabbage? Leftover onion? I hate wasting good ingredients, so with a few extras I decided to try making a vinegar-based coleslaw. I added some sugar (couple of teaspoons), some distilled white vinegar (about a cup and a half), minced garlic (tablespoon), crushed red pepper (teaspoon), salt (couple of teaspoons), pepper, cayenne, and dried rosemary. I tossed it together, then put it in a bag in the fridge. Over the next few days I'll be shaking this up in the bag. I promise to report back on the flavor, but so far it tastes pretty good and tangy "raw".

EDIT: For those of you wondering just how this might affect your diet, there is an estimate of the nutritional information in this dish over at Calorie Count. Keep in mind that I used chicken sausage: pork sausage is likely to have a higher fat content. Also, I used less olive oil by using a mister. You could essentially eliminate the olive oil with a non-stick pan and not oiling the casserole dish. Enjoy!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Gâteau de Boeuf Royale

I've been meaning to post here for a very long time. So many meals have been made and I feel I've been greedy by not sharing them. This is something that should change. My apologies to all of you.

Right now in New Orleans it's Carnival. You can read up on it on your own, but it ends in a little over a month with Mardi Gras. Starting on Twelfth Night, Epiphany, or just plain old January 6th, we can eat cake. Not just any cake: king cake.

The New Orleans king cake is based off of the Rosca de reyes, gâteau des Rois, or cake of kings. Honestly, I don't know much about the history of it so I won't bore you with regurgitated Wikipedia lore. You're likely reading this on the internet, which means you can open a new tab or window and read up on your own. The important thing to remember is that Mardi Gras day becomes the last day this cake can be eaten, making it a seasonal cake. You can buy a king cake anywhere in New Orleans. Not limited to bakeries, I've seen them in grocery stores and gas stations. They come in all shapes and sizes, and also with all kinds of fillings. This is where I had a flash of inspiration.

It's no secret I'm a fan of meat. I cure my own pancetta, make my own sausage, and generally love cooking meat. Pork. Beef. Chicken. All of it. Typically, whenever I look at something, I always wonder how it will taste if it is wrapped in or stuffed with meat. Sometimes it's a funny thought (seriously, who would want a bacon wrapped Snickers bar?) but sometimes it's doable enough that I can't stop thinking about. How can I stuff a cake with meat and not have it turn out gross?

I started researching meat cakes and came up with mostly English recipes for what was essentially a meat loaf wrapped in dough: not exactly what I was looking for. I considered the Italian stromboli, often filled with delicious meats and cheeses, but the hard bread crust didn't seem to fit. French bread, while delicious and a perfect carrier for food, often ends up soggy if moist contents are kept in it too long (although the same can be said for any bread, I suppose). I kept my search quiet because, seriously, not the most pleasant thoughts come to mind when the average person hears the words "meat-filled king cake". I gave up on certain things: no icing, no colored sprinkles, and probably not actually cake (which would likely have the same soggy issues as a regular bread would).

The answer ended up being an easy one that I feel stayed pretty true to New Orleans. One of my favorite foods is the Natchitoches meat pie. They're cheap, filling, hot, and - most importantly - full of meat. Could this be made bigger? Why not! Could it be made bigger and shaped like a ring? Sure! Can I make it look like a king cake? Hm ... a challenge.

New Orleans king cakes have a somewhat "standard" look: covered in a white icing with purple, green, and yellow colored sugar all over it. While I enjoy the sweet and savory combination, icing and meat did not sound appetizing at all. I considered mashed potatoes, as I saw done over at Black Widow Bakery's site. I instead opted for cheese, because if it's not wrapped in or stuffed with meat then it should be covered or filled with cheese. Next the colors: green onions and peppers seemed an easy choice, being part of the Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking. I considered red onion for the purple, but I was afraid that it might lose too much color in cooking (and raw onion would be a bit too harsh). A wine sauce came to mind. Actually, a wine syrup.

Behold, the Gâteau de Boeuf Royale, as my boss so aptly named it.

The dough is a simple suet pastry dough, made with flour, water, suet, salt, and egg. I have a ridiculous amount of ground lamb fat handy (feel free to ask why) and as it often adds a "meaty" flavor to whatever it's cooked with I thought it would work well.

The meat filling is just beef, onion, green pepper, celery, and garlic, flavored with some salt, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, and Crystal hot sauce. (I based it on this recipe from Nola Cuisine, but I was just looking for an ingredient list.)

While that cooled, I heated up some wine and mixed in an equal amount of sugar, and set it simmer as long as it could stand it. I'm not a wine buff at all, so I grabbed some Barefoot Cabernet Sauvignon because it was cheap and I recognize the label.

With the wine syrup cooking, I rolled out the dough (although in hindsight, I should have rolled it thinner) and spooned the filling down the length of it. I pinched the edges, then had a glass of wine and contemplated how best to flip it over and form it into a ring. Into a 400 degree oven it went.

As the giant meat pie baked, I diced some yellow pepper and green onion. The yellow pepper was sauteed in the beef drippings (I obviously wasn't going for "healthy") and tossed with some of Trader Joe's 21 Seasoning Salute, which is probably the most amazing spice mixture I've ever bought, right next to Tony Chachere's. The "cake" at this point seemed cooked enough, so I layered on slices of provolone cheese, baked it until the cheese melted, then added the toppings. In hindsight, the wine syrup should not have gone on at this point: the heat melted it immediately and it just ran off onto the parchment paper.

A little more time in the oven, a chance to cool, and a little more of the wine syrup ... and there it was. A meat-filled king cake.

And the best part?

It tasted amazing.

So, my wonderful neighbors, what can we take from this? Be creative and have no fear! Nothing I did here was "new". I took a bunch of recipes and smooshed them together. Luckily it turned out great!

Till next time. It's a beautiful day ...