Last night around 6:30 pm, there was little joy in this small part of the universe as I reclined tensely on my dentist's plastic-covered chair and tasted something bitter (and banana-flavored?) in the back of my throat. With both of Dr. Gordon's hands firmly planted inside my mouth and soft rock on the radio ("Ya like Barry White? No? Ya don't like Barry White? How about Springsteen? Ya like Springsteen?"), I focused on the gray-beige panels of the ceiling, tried to forget about the high-pitched nasal whine of the drill and the disconcerting clink of metal on bone, and thought about dinner.
After all, how better to soothe Novocaine-induced heart palpitations and my jumpy, tender
It'd have to be something relatively simple and relatively quick, I thought, because by the time I made my way from the Upper West Side to Columbus Circle's Whole Foods and then further home to Chelsea, I'd be flirting dangerously with hypoglycemic jitters. Something savory and juicy to ward off the sudden chill, yes. But could it be colorful and healthy, too? It could.
After a whopping $625 bill (oh, you know: annual x-rays, a simple cleaning, and a bit of sealant around an old filling and there go my hopes and dreams for finishing my 2006 Roth IRA contributions, for my travel plans this year, and for calming some of the bone-chilling angst I experience in the middle of the night when the state of my finances wakes me up in a cold sweat), I couldn't afford much beyond two chicken-apple sausages and a five-dollar bottle of Chilean red. With the sausages wrapped neatly and stashed in my bag, I made my gum-numbed way home where a head of red cabbage awaited me and my smarting credit card.
Amanda Hesser cleverly updated an old Craig Claiborne recipe for pork chops with rye stuffing in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, with the additional bonus of a modern-day riff on the dish by Marco Canora of Hearth. While neither pork belly nor pork chops tickled my fancy, it was a different story when I saw Canora's recipe for braised cabbage. It was with this spicy, wintery dish in mind that I'd bought the delicately flavored sausages, and as they warmed to room temperature on the kitchen counter, I sliced my way through a red onion and that hard head of cabbage, almost forgotten in the depths of my fridge.
I've said it before, I'm sure, and I'll say it again. There's nothing quite like cooking to soothe a frazzled mind and body. As a knob of butter melted and fizzed in the pan, and the mise en place around me came into place, I could feel the knots in my shoulders come apart. The onion cooked up gently before the strips of cabbage went into the pan with a sizzle. And then, the pungent cider, the dryish wine, the fragrant caraway and mustard (best pals of the cabbage, those two). I cut a circle with a vent out of my parchment roll and placed it on top of the cabbage (wasn't Julie always complaining about this step? I can't remember, though I did find it a bit of a pain last night. Wouldn't a top have been better? Not that I have one that fits my skillet. So I don't know what my kvetching is about. Self-pity, I believe. Which reminds me, have I told you about my dentist's bill yet?).
While the cabbage simmered and the sausages popped and sizzled quietly in their cast-iron bed and film of broth, I sat on the couch and contemplated my options. After-hours waitressing? Foot fetish modeling? Selling all of my earthly belongings on Ebay? As I started to hyperventilate, Ben showed up just in time to firmly talk me down off the ledge and stroke my hair soothingly in that calming way of his, before oohing and aahing gratefully over the stove and then sitting down at the table with me.
I'll tell you, there's nothing like a simple, square meal and a tall, silly boyfriend to make the world right again. The silky tangles of cabbage were spicy and sweet-sour, oh-so-perfect for a full-forked mouthful along with a slice of mild sausage. The caraway gave the dish real character and strength, while the small shreds of apple mellowed and sweetened the kicky cabbage. This was no timid dish and we blithely ate up all of it (in our defense, my head of cabbage was less than the 2.5 pounder called for).
Oh sure, I'd still like to curse the gods of dental hygiene requirements and a world in which my retirement isn't guaranteed, but my dinner last night was so damn good that I think my week might have even been salvaged by it. And that's saying quite a bit.
Braised Red Cabbage
2 tablespoons butter
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium (2 1/2 pounds) red cabbage, quartered, spines removed and thinly sliced
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
1/2 cup cider vinegar
3/4 cup dry red wine
1 large tart apple, such as Granny Smith, peeled and coarsely grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Melt the butter in a large sautÃ© pan over medium heat. Add the onions and sautÃ© until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the cabbage and toss until it begins to wilt, 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Add the brown sugar, caraway seeds, mustard seeds, vinegar, wine and apple. Stir to combine, and season with salt and pepper. Cut a circle of parchment paper the size of the bottom of the pan, slice a small vent in the middle, and place directly over the cabbage. Simmer until the cabbage is soft, about 45 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper, and serve.