Yesterday, my new Facebook friend Linda V. K. asked me if I knew what ‘wirsing’ means in English? While the word ‘wirsing’ is actually German for a lovely dish of butter-braised Savoy cabbage, the dish is decidedly Belgian in nature. Belgium is a land of country cooking & hearty food, and what could possibly be more country than cabbage?!
Whenever I see cabbage, I am instantly reminded of the frosted-over cabbage fields sprawled out over the western Flemish farm belt. The fields stretch for miles on end and are planted in perfectly straight rows, with dirt pathways cutting through the geometrical pattern like goat trails. Lone farmers tend to their crops with their weathered hands clad in woolen fingerless gloves, their rosy cheeks glowing like red beacons of life on the otherwise desolate, bleak fields. I used to cycle alongside these fields on my way to or from school, often pulling my sweater’s sleeves over my hands to give my fingers some relief from the icy morning fog that blankets these lands in Fall & Winter. I’m sure my mother’s ‘Don’t forget your gloves!!’ must have echoed a million times through our hallway.
When kicking off our snow-covered boots and darting over the frigid garage floor in our socks, the warmth of the kitchen and the aroma of butter-braised cabbage and browned sausage felt like the culinary equivalent of sitting by a warm hearth. In my post about braised red cabbage, I already proclaimed my love for the deep purple vegetable, but dark green Savoy cabbage was never all that popular. It’s a universal phenomenon for kids to dislike leafy green vegetables, and Belgian youth is no exception to this. I remember Bert & I used to heap butter and some of the sausage’s pan drippings over the green cabbage, to make it more palatable.
The recipe below is for Linda. As promised, it’s imported directly from a trusted source in small rural Flemish village. Photo courtesy goes entirely to Belgian celebrity chef Jeroen Meus.
BUTTER BRAISED SAVOY CABBAGE WITH SPECK
(Adapted from a recipe by Jeroen Meus)
– 1/2 head of Savoy cabbage (or green cabbage)
– a small pinch of sodium bicarbonate, to retain the cabbage’s bright green color during cooking (*)
– 8 slices of thick cut bacon, chopped into small pieces
– ground nutmeg, to taste
– salt & pepper, to taste
– 3 Tbsp of good quality butter
– ¼ cup of heavy cream
(*) This is completely optional but safe and flavorless! Sodium Bicarbonate is similar to Alka-Seltzer, for instance, or other stomach acid drugs. You only need a little bit for a whole pot of water, and it will not affect the flavor of the dish, nor is it unsafe to use. Sodium Bicarbonate ensures that the bright green color of cabbage is preserved in the cooking process, as otherwise the cabbage turns into somewhat of a drab brownish green. Many restaurants use this trick to preserve the bright green color of many green vegetables.
For an authentic flavor, you will need a head of Savoy cabbage (see picture below), and you will also need 2 large pots or Dutch ovens.
Start with filling one of your pots with water and bring to a rolling boil. While the water is heating, clear tough ‘older’ leaves from the outside cabbage and discard (or compost!). Cut cabbage in half, reserving one half for later. For the other half, cut the hard core out of the middle and cut that half in half again, so you end up with 2 quarter cabbage parts. Slice each cabbage quarter in very thin strips.
When the water is boiling, add a pinch of sodium bicarbonate to ensure the cabbage retains its bright green color. Add chopped cabbage, and simmer (blanch) for approx. 3-4 min until cabbage is crisp tender. Pour cabbage into a colander, and drain very well.
In the second pan, add 1 Tbsp of butter and brown bacon pieces until crisp, approx. 10 minutes. Reserve a few bacon bits for garnish. Add well-drained cabbage and sauté for 2-3 minutes more until cabbage is soft and well combined. Fold 2 Tbsp of butter and cream into the braised cabbage, and season with salt, pepper & ground nutmeg to taste. Sprinkle reserved bacon bits over the top and serve with browned sausage or you favorite protein.
Another Belgian classic! Enjoy!