I NEVER participate in chain letters. So, of course, when I got a recipe exchange chain, I couldn't resist, especially since it came from a reliable and upstanding source. You send out the letter to 20 other people with two names on it, the person who sent it to you and your own name. Each recipient is supposed to send a recipe to the person who originally sent the letter to you, and then send it along to 20 more recipients who in turn will send you recipes.
The first response I got was from Tony. I didn't send the recipe exchange letter to him, but my cousin did. He didn't send a recipe but asked, "Who uses recipes?" Good question. A mutual acquaintance of ours uses recipes, and when a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of chopped ginger, this individual has been known to chop the ginger and pack it into a measuring tablespoon to make sure that he has the right amount. This is one extreme. Tony is probably the other extreme. Most of use fall somewhere in between. Readers of this blog will have observed that I rarely bake, because I don't have the patience to follow the directions precisely or the equanimity to deal with the results when they don't come out as they should. But when I cook, I still like recipes because I like the variety that they bring to my cooking. I rarely follow recipes as they are written, but they are a useful starting point. I find that when I don't use recipes, food tastes like me, rather than like itself. Who born outside of Bengal could make a Bengali fish stew without using a recipe, at least the first time, and probably many other times as well? I tend to remember and internalize recipes better than less significant information, like my childrens' names, and usually don't need to refer to a cookbook or an online recipe, but behind most of what I cook, there is a recipe somewhere. Which brings me (almost) to this post's recipe.
We have been members of a foreign affairs discussion group for decades, since time out of mind (an English common law formula) and I had hair. Sometimes the discussions are interesting and surprising, but we have been doing it long enough that everyone usually knows what everyone else is going to say. Still, we have a good time and enjoy each others' company, and every meeting is preceded by a pot luck where the host makes the main dish(es). Debbie and Eli have only been in the group for a few years, so they can occasionally surprise us with their opinions, and Debbie usually surprises us with her cooking. Debbie uses recipes, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. She is of Hungarian extraction, and Eli Iraqi via Israel. Usually she makes Iraqi food, though sometimes Hungarian as well. At our most recent meeting, she made chicken paprikash and an Iraqi stew of chicken meatballs with dried fruit. When I volunteered to bring a side I had intended to make shlishkes, a Hungarian dish of potato dumplings (or pasta) dressed with toasted challah crumbs and highly seasoned with salt, pepper and sugar. Carbs in carb sauce, what could be bad? But she sent me an email that she was already making dumplings (halushki) and rice, so I should bring something less starchy. So I brought a Hungarian cabbage salad that everybody loved, and several people asked for the recipe. What recipe? I make a cabbage salad that is a descendant of the recipe in the Cuisine of Hungary by George Lang, who as far as anybody knows never had any hair. (I have the 1971 edition and it is one of the greatest cookbooks ever written.) But I depart from it in important ways (he blanches the cabbage, who can be bothered?) and my recipe also owes a lot to the cabbage salad sold by the Kosher Marketplace on Broadway and 90th. And to my own imagination. So here is the cabbage salad that I make, written down for the first time. It's really not much of a recipe, so feel free to play around with it:
Hungarian Cabbage Salad
- 1-1.5 pounds of cabbage (one small head or 1/2 of a large head)
- 1 bunch of scallions, white and light green parts
- 1 bunch of dill
- Olive oil, about 1/4 cup, more if you aren't worried about calories
- Cider vinegar, about 2 tablespoons
- 1/2 of a small onion, coarsely grated
- 1 teaspoon Bragg's aminos, unless you are sick of them
- 1/2 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds, bruised by pounding them lightly in a mortar or pestle or crushing them with the side of a knife
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- Clean the cabbage by removing the outer leaves. I have heard that once you do this, the cabbage is so clean that tap water will only make it dirtier.
- Cut in quarters and remove the core.
- Shred very finely. You can use a mandoline if you have one. What I do is cut it into very thin shreds with a very sharp knife, starting at the top with the cut surface facing down. After several cut, given the way I hold the knife, there will be an overhand, so I rotate the cabbage so that the cut surface faces up and continue cutting it into fine shreds, almost slivers. This doesn't take long and the cabbage seems to come out fine enough this way.
- Put the cabbage in a large bowl and salt lightly.
- Chop the dill and scallions and toss into the cabbage.
- Whisk together the remaining ingredients for the dressing. Taste that it has the right balance of sweet and sour. Toss with the cabbage.
- Weight down the salad: this softens it without blanching. Cover the top with some plastic wrap or wax paper, put a plate or pot cover on it, and weight it down with a heavy object. I use a Thai mortar. A large can would do as well. Leave it for as long as you want, but at least an hour.
- Chill. Toss and taste for salt before you serve. This amount should serve 4-6 generously.
- The cabbage will also soften as it is left. It is best later the day you make it or the next day. It can be kept longer, but should not be considered a long-term asset.