Six greedy omnivores sat waiting for their main course in eager anticipation. They had already dispatched some foie gras and some scallops with ceps. What could possibly come next?
I brought the pièce de resistance to the table. A magnificent dome of cabbage sat on a large platter, surrounded by shaped carrots and potatoes. It glistened in the afternoon sun. I could not resist a tease: I said that just for a change I thought it would be nice to have a vegetarian main course. They manfully attempted to remain smiling, but the sunlight had disappeared from their features. I suggested to the ringleader he might like to cut it and serve. He plunged in the knife and met a little resistance. He persevered and managed to cut a sort of segment and, as he withdrew it, a partridge fell out. Suddenly, laughter and happiness returned as they realised they were not to be deprived of their meat.
This incident took place some five years ago, but it set me thinking. Although it might not do for the salivating omnivores who had at least five bottles of red wine lined up to accompany their bloodlust, I thought it would be interesting to make a stuffed cabbage which did not incorporate meat. I experimented. I made a cabbage cake with chestnuts and apples. I made one with mozzarella and tomatoes baked dry in the oven and another one with mozzarella and truffles (rather good, that one). I have made them with no additional filling – just lovely buttered cabbage – and served this magnificent cake alongside a baked ham at Christmas.
Whether you serve it with meat, on its own as a main, or as a starter is your business. I would be very happy with a slab of it for my lunch, especially when modestly drenched in the new season’s olive oil being released as I write.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais, London
Cabbage cake with mozzarella and chestnuts
The “cake” needs no binding to hold together, just as long as the cabbage is squeezed dry and rested for at least five minutes after it is taken out of the oven.
1 large Savoy cabbage
250g mozzarella cheese
100g peeled chestnuts
50g unsalted butter
1 clove garlic
250g peeled and chopped
Tinned plum tomatoes
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs of thyme
Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage and wash them well in cold water. Drop these leaves into a large pot of boiling water and simmer gently for two minutes. Lift out the leaves carefully and refresh them in a bucket of cold water to fix the colour. Trim any protruding central stalks flat with the leaves and dry the leaves on kitchen paper. Cut the cabbage hearts in four and wash them carefully before cooking in the same water for three to four minutes. The cabbage should be tender but the stalks still hard. Drain the hearts and refresh them in cold water. Cut away the stalks, discarding them, and gently squeeze the cabbage dry.
Take a round, flat-bottomed and ovenproof dish about 20cm in diameter and grease it well with butter. Put the most handsome leaf on the bottom. It should cover it. Overlapping bountifully, line the sides with the rest of the leaves so that they overhang the sides of the dish. Place a layer of the separated cabbage hearts on top, season well and dot with butter. Cut the mozzarella into 1cm slices and season with salt and pepper. Lay these on top of the cabbage and distribute half the chestnuts on top. Fill the dish with successive layers of cabbage, cheese, chestnuts, cabbage, cheese, chestnuts and finally cabbage and push well down into the mould to compact the cake and remove air pockets. Bring over the overhanging leaves to cover, dot with butter and place a spare leaf on top to protect the rest (you can discard it later). Bake the cake in a moderately hot oven (180°C) for 30 minutes.
Peel and chop the shallots and garlic very finely. Stew them gently in a tablespoon of olive oil for five minutes before adding the tomatoes. Add the bay leaf and thyme, a teaspoon of sugar, a good pinch of salt and some milled black pepper and simmer very gently for 10 minutes. Remove the cabbage cake from the oven and let the cake stand for three to four minutes before inverting a plate over the top of the dish and then turning the cake out on to the plate. Serve with the tomato sauce alongside and with a little good-quality olive oil.