dsc04248Involtini di cavolo alla ricotta, The Silver Spoon, p. 444.

‘Tis a gift to be simple, as the old Shaker hymn that was so recently and disappointingly not played live at the Inauguration ceremonies last month. The Italians take pride in the simplicity of their cuisine, about which, it is true to say, the sum exceeds the parts. Superb ingredients brought together with a minimum of fuss but also with a deft hand sum up the strengths of Italy’s cuisine.

There is a downside to simplicity. When the clean, elegant lines and light wood of Shaker furniture are all that decorate your house, sometimes you long for a throw pillow, a little color, God forbid a little upholstery, at least a cushion. So, too, after a bit of time in Italy, I used to dream wistfully of cilantro, ancho chili powder, curry, ginger, anything to jolt my taste buds out of the arms of Morpheus and into the flames of Hell. Of all my friends in Venice, only one found the cuisines of Latin America or India appealing. A sweeping generalization, I admit. But there’s a reason why Chinese and Indian restaurants in Italy serve such bland food: most Italians don’t like complicated, spicy food. Again, I generalize.

Still, I love simplicity and clarity. And for that I mainly turn to Marcella Hazan. I’ve recently cracked open the huge Silver Spoon Cookbook and begun to test some of the recipes. This one embodies precisely what I referred to above. Provided you use very good ingredients, this simple dish of cabbage rolls exceeded my expectations. It is good. And short. I admit, however, that it might challenge most home cooks’ definition of simple, since it involves a several-step process centered on the tedium of blanching leaves. It is none the less worth it.

So, in a nutshell, here’s how it appears in the book…

Serves 4

8 Savoy cabbage leaves

11 oz Swiss chard, stems removed

scant 1 cup ricotta cheese

4 Tblsp Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 quantity tomato sauce

salt and pepper

Blanch the cabbage leaves in salted, boiling water for 5 minutes, then drain and refresh in iced water. Drain again and spread out on a dish towel. Cook the Swiss chard in salted, boiling water for 10-15 minutes, then drain, squeezing out as much liquid as possible. Chop finely, put in a bowl and stir in the ricotta, Parmesan and eggs. Season with salt and pepper, mix well and divide the mixture among the cabbage leaves. Roll up each leaf and tie with kitchen string. Place the cabbage rolls in a wide pan or flameproof casserole, pour in the tomato sauce, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes.

What this recipe doesn’t tell you…

First of all, make sure you have kitchen string.

8 cabbage leaves may seem like a lot to put in a pot of water. I found “spooning” them — stacking them — and dropping them in as a stack saved space in the pot.

I thought 15 minutes a little excessive to blanch the Swiss chard. And don’t count on squeezing the water out of it until you’ve let it cool or run it sufficiently under cold water.

Place the cabbage leaf on the surface in front of you with the spine running horizontally. Lay out a ridge of filling horizontally and then roll up the leaf from bottom to top (or from one side of the leaf to another). Don’t pack the leaf tightly, because it will expand a bit.

I quite prefer tying the ends of the leaf to folding it like a packet and pinned together with toothpicks, as I’ve done with other types of stuff cabbage. It makes for a much neater bundle that actually holds together.

The tomato sauce is key. I used some of last late summer’s sauce, which I made with butter. Very velvety. The dish depends utterly on the quality of the sauce. If you have some in the freezer, defrost it right away. Spring is approaching and you need to use it anyhow. I have to clear out my freezer for the incoming pig.

All told, I had a wonderful dinner last night. A good winter’s dish for vegetarians.