The Silver Spoon’s Ricotta and Savoy Cabbage Rolls

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.

Food Alone: Stuffed Cabbage alla siciliana

At the end of the month, I get creative. Stretching the last few dollars and the remaining food in my house becomes a challenge. It’s usually in these circumstances that I forego the cookbooks and try to put together food that will last a couple of days. For reasons I can no longer remember, I have a savoy cabbage, a couple of tomatoes, and a few dark Japanese eggplants in my refrigerator. There are plenty of stewed tomatoes that I made from the summer’s abundance in my freezer. Do I prepare and eat them separately or do I try to find a way to put them together?

I’ve placed this recipe in the Food Alone category for the simple reason that I made it for myself and I expect to get about three meals out of it. What’s more, stuffed cabbage strikes me as a fall and winter dish and even though it’s still in the low 80s/high 70s outside, I like to eat in anticipation of the weather. I look forward to hibernating.

So, here’s how I made my stuffed cabbage:

1 small head of savoy cabbage

Garlic, minced

2-3 Tblsp olive oil

1 cup long-grained white rice

2 Japanese eggplant diced in tiny cubes

2 tomatoes diced in tiny cubes

Mint, chopped

1/3 cup raisins

kosher salt

2 cups or one 28-oz can of organic stewed or whole tomatoes, with some of their juices

toothpicks

handful of chopped parsley

First, chop up the eggplant, tomato, and mint. Set aside.

While a pot of water was coming to a boil, I carefully separated the leafs of the savoy cabbage. I blanched them, two at a time, in the boiling water for 2 minutes and then drained them. Then I put them in a bowl to the side. I liked using Savoy. The leaves retained their bowl-like shape, which made it easier to fill and then close them up with toothpicks.

I started the rice in my rice cooker while I prepared the rest of the filling.

I warmed the olive oil in a skillet and added the garlic. One common direction in recipes that begin with sauteing garlic is to put the heat on medium or high. I don’t know why. Garlic burns easily. I start off with a low flame under garlic and raise it as I add other ingredients that will help protect the garlic from browning too much and becoming bitter.

After about a minute, add the finely diced eggplant. Because the pieces are so small, they’ll cook quickly and their size will make it suitable for the filling. Add the chopped tomato and cook for a few minutes. Add the mint, raisins, and kosher salt to taste. As usual, I find it can stand a liberal dose of kosher salt. Add to the vegetables in the skillet as much of the cooked rice as you think is necessary for the filling. I didn’t use the whole amount, but about 1/2 to 2/3s of what I prepared. Push all the filling to one side of the skillet, so that you can place the stuff cabbage packets back into the skillet as you prepare them.

Filling the cabbage leaves demands restraint. Spoon less than you’re inclined to put in. It will make it easier to fold the stiff spine of the leaf and the sides together into the shape of a packet. Seal with a toothpick. Place the packet back into the skillet.

When you’ve filled all the cabbage leaves and placed them back in the skillet, pour the stewed tomatoes over the packets and turn the heat to medium. When the tomatoes come to a simmer, turn the flame down. I let them simmer in the tomatoes and their juices for about half an hour. By the time I removed them from the heat, the tomatoes had reduced a bit. I strew choppped parsley leaves over the cabbage and transferred a few to my plate.

Afterthoughts:

I have no idea whether Sicilians consider stuffed cabbage a part of their heritage, but the flavors I chose certainly reminded me of those that I tasted in Sicily. It’s a peasant-ish dish, after all. The vivid red of the tomatoes contributed to the pleasure of eating the cabbage. This was easy enough to make that I’d like to play around with other fillings. Next time, perhaps I’ll use ground pork. But on the whole a very forgiving recipe. And I definitely will have two more meals with the leftovers.