A nation's menu is an ever changing thing; largely impacted by the geopolitics and/or economics of the day. Waves of immigration brought European cuisines to North America. Construction of the cross-continental railroads and the various gold rushes brought Asian workers who introduced Chinese food to North American tables. The fall of Viet Nam brought refugees with a penchant for certain foods that were unheard of 40 years ago but we now love. One of the things I most enjoy about Toronto is the cluster of restaurants in the city's so-called 'ethnic neighbourhoods' where one can eat and drink and be transported thousands of miles away.
I see it happening here in Burlington of all places. A local strawberry farm, needing a supply of workers for the farm started to hire Mexican workers. Within two years our local farmers' market featured tomatillos, hot peppers, and a shop opened up where you can buy corn husks, masa, and dried peppers. Happily I no longer need to bring these things back from trips to California. I am sure a good Mexican restaurant won't be far off. *fingers crossed*
Italy is no different. It seems strange to us but the Italian food we think of as quintessential 'Italian' didn't exist years ago. Tomatoes were brought to Italy by the 1530's where it was widely thought that they were poisonous thus were grown only for decoration. It wasn't until people were starving in the Naples area that the poisonous tomato became commonly used as food for the poor. While many schoolchildren are taught that Marco Polo introduced pasta to the nation's diet it was more likely Arab traders in the 8th century who brought dried pasta to Italy. Gelato is another Italian staple that Polo is thought to have brought to Italy - this too is unlikely but there is evidence to suggest that he did bring the concept of an ice cream maker - something the Chinese had perfect thousands of years before Polo ever trekked to China in search spices, silks, and gemstones. Intermarriage among the wealthy families either imported dishes to Italy or exported Italian culinary strengths to other countries (as was the case when Catherine De Medici of Florence married the man who was to become Henry II of France).
I am sure you're sitting there saying 'this is very interesting Jerry but what the hell does this have to do with the smothered cabbage you're supposed to be writing about?'
Patience, gentle reader, patience.
This dish, to my addled brain at 7 am on a snowy Saturday morning, seems to not be what one would think of as Italian food at all. Cabbage is a vegetable that tolerates the cold well - one passes field after field of cabbage throughout central and northern Europe. Marcella writes, and the name itself suggests, that this is a dish common in the Venice area - an area known for the movement goods both in and out of the city due to the talents of the people in seafaring.
I've had similar dishes before. Over on my own blog you'll find posts about braised cabbage with apples, meatballs with braised cabbage, and so on. The dishes are generally from the Alpine regions of Europe. Braised cabbage also features widely on Russian, Polish, and Nordic menus.
Families intermingle with families from the next village. Traders move to set up shop in a large city. Invaders stream down from the Alps to try and seize the Pearl that is Venice . . . years later a recipe for smothered cabbage, a dish that seems positively Germanic in sensibility, gets featured in a cookbook on Italian cooking. You see how it works.
Happily I looked ahead in the fall and noticed that I had this coming up in the rotation. As I mentioned last night on my own blog, cabbage is one of the foods that screams 'fall' to me. This was added to the menu where I made the praised pork with vinegar and bay leaves (pork also says 'fall' to me for some reason - clearly I am food obsessed when the seasons 'talk' to me about food) and the sunchoke gratin that I wrote about two weeks ago.
Marcella writes that you can use any variety of cabbage for this dish - I had a red cabbage on hand so that was what I used. The cabbage is shredded finely - a critical step - given my shoddy knife skills I used a mandolin. Onions are sautéed in olive oil. Garlic added to the golden onions. Followed by the fine shards of cabbage. Once the cabbage is well coated with the onion/garlic/oil mixture it cooks until wilted, at which time the remaining ingredients are added. Now the pot is covered and left on a low heat for at least 90 minutes – it takes patience to cook something that smells so good for so long . . . . but you won’t regret it when you taste your first mouthful.
The slow cooking method softens the cabbage flavour that some find harsh. The addition of vinegar, garlic, and onion provide for sophisticated layers of flavour that is very appealing. The splash of vinegar (this is one area where the recipe is quite different than other slowly cooked cabbage dishes that I have made - generally they require far more vinegar) truly transforms this dish.
Here is the complete meal - what a perfect cool weather feast this was!