The current Cook the Books Club selection is :
The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by the ruthless pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot. He will be spared, she tells him, as long as he puts exquisite food in front of her every Sunday without fail.1
There's the pirate ship's colorful cast of characters — Mr. Apples, the knitting thug; mysterious twins Feng and Bai; and Joshua, who can neither hear nor speak and becomes a sort of adopted son to Wedgwood — plus buried family secrets aplenty and a thorough condemnation of the inhumane trading of tea, slaves and opium.2
The novel offered a change of time and scenery to my usual reading: I sailed on the Flying Rose, met the characters, followed their adventures and on Sundays I sat down with Captain Mabbott and Chef Wedgwood to savor his dishes and their conversation. As you can imagine from the premise, there was a fair amount of food in the book, some intriguing dishes, some less so, all providing to the reader a chance to think about the limitations of cooking on a ship that spends a lot of time sailing and does not have refrigeration on board.
During a visit to an island, Wedgwood encounters lemongrass (citronella) and that gave me the idea of using it, something I have never done. However, I could not find fresh lemongrass where I have been recently, so I found inspiration in the episode where Wedgwood gets hold of fresh cabbage and makes sauerkraut (crauti) with it. Some years ago I made sauerkraut at home and realized that I am not wild about it. I do like cabbage, though, all the various types. The variety that caught my attention at recent farmers' markets is pretty red Napa cabbage.3
I became better acquainted with Napa cabbage a few years ago when I worked on my rendition of the Indonesian dish Orak Arik Wortel (Napa cabbage, carrot and egg scramble)5 for the cookbook Risikitchen.6 It was time to develop another recipe with it and here it is.
Ingredients for the vegetables:
- 9 ounces / 255 grams winter squash, to obtain a clean weight of 8 ounces / 225 grams
- 6 ounces / 170 grams red onion
- 3 tablespoons / 45 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 13-14 ounces / 370-40 grams red Napa cabbage
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- ½ teaspoon berbere (Ethiopian spice mix)
- 3 tablespoons / 45 ml lukewarm water
- ¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, to taste
- Roasted applesauce (recipe below) or your favorite applesauce (unsweetened), to serve
Remove seeds and strings from the squash (a grapefruit spoon is my favorite tool to do this). Use a sturdy swivel vegetable peeler to peel the squash, then cut it into small cubes.
Peel the onion, halve it and thinly slice it lengthwise.
Warm up the olive oil in a 10-inch deep sauté pan or large skillet on medium heat. Turn down the heat to medium-low, add the onion, stir well and cook for 2 minutes. Add the squash, stir well and cook for 2 minutes. Cover the pan and cook on low heat for 10 minutes, stirring often.
In the meantime, separate the Napa cabbage leaves and slice them 1/4-1/2 inch / 0.6-1.25 cm thick.
Add the garlic to the pan, sprinkle the berbere and stir well. After 1 minute, add the cabbage and the water, stir slightly (this first stirring will be a bit awkward, given the cabbage volume) and cover. Cook on low heat until the Napa cabbage and squash are tender (20 minutes or so), stirring often. Should the pan become dry, add another tablespoon of water.
Sprinkle salt, stir, taste then adjust as needed. Remove the pan from the heat.
Serve with roasted applesauce on the side. Spoon some applesauce on the portion of vegetables, stir it in and enjoy.
Ingredients for a batch of roasted applesauce:
- 3 pounds / 1.36 kg apples (se Note below)
- A generous pinch of fine sea salt
Note: Since they are left unpeeled, organic or pesticide-free apples are strongly recommended. In terms of varieties, mix sweet and tart varieties to get a balanced flavor.
Heat the oven to 500 F / 260 C.
Rinse well, quarter and core the apples. If an apple is large, cut each quarter in half lengthwise. Distribute the apples in a 3 quart / 3 liter pyrex baking dish or similar baking vessel, sprinkle the salt and stir briefly. Cover with aluminum foil and seal around the edges. Bake 30 minutes or until the apples are soft.
Remove the foil carefully to let the steam out and transfer the apples into a bowl. Purée the apples with an immersion blender. At the beginning, pulse and move the blender to start breaking the apples, then reduce them to a fairly smooth purée.
Spoon the applesauce into sterilized jars, put the lid on and store in the refrigerator.
My side dish is not at the level of the delicacies Chef Wedgwood developed for Captain Mabbot, but it is greeted with enthusiasm at the dinner table and that, for me, is the best reward.
1 The book's page on the publisher's website
2 A review of the book on NPR's website
3 Napa cabbage is known also with other names
4 From this blog: roasted apple sauce
5 Article on (and recipe for) Orak Arik Wortel (Napa cabbage, carrot and egg scramble)
6 Risikitchen: Ricette vincenti da tutto il mondo (in Italian, edited by Eloisa Vargiu)
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the cavolo napa rosso e zucca con salsa di mele audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
FTC disclosure: I have received the table linen free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.