Hardy Cabbage is an Ideal Ingredient for Live-Fire Cooking
The humble cabbage has forever been used in dishes across the world, but it’s often confined to a supporting role. Second to the beets in borscht, overpowered by mayonnaise or vinegar in coleslaw, and as a braised afterthought to Irish corned beef, the green doesn’t always get its moment to shine. That’s changing as chefs revisit this fiber-rich vegetable, especially as more chefs cook it over an open fire, where it takes on a crispy, charred outside with a tender inside. “Cabbage is an empty palette,” says Jonathan Brooks of Milktooth in Indianapolis. “It has a great texture and can hold up to a lot of other flavors.”
Brooks cooks his cabbage over a binchotan grill, using white coal, which burns incredibly hot and is almost smokeless. “It adds a cool flavor to the cabbage, which takes on a lot of the flavor of the naturally cool charcoal,” he says of the process. “It gets dark, caramelized and chewy.” The char balances well with delicate flavors, in this case inspired by the charbroiled oyster with miso butter and togarashi Brooks ate at another Indianapolis restaurant, Tinker Street. To emulate the flavors of the dish, Brooks adds a miso glaze to the cabbage, along with pine pollen syrup. Fresh Dungeness crab captures that ocean flavor, and he garnishes it with togarashi and borage flowers ($15, recipe).
At Chicago’s Avec, Perry Hendrix is no stranger to working with live fire or whole vegetables; the restaurant has been using a wood-fired oven since its start 14 years ago. “I love using fire for all of its capabilities,” Hendrix says. “Grilling, braising, slow-roasting, we try to do it all.” For his charred cabbage dish, Hendrix utilizes the wood oven in two ways. At the end of each day, he puts split cabbages into the oven once the fire has died, using residual heat to braise the cabbage, covered with white wine and aromatics. Then at pick-up, he throws the cabbage onto the plancha to get an initial char before it goes back into the wood-burning oven, this time roaring on full heat. While the cabbage cooks, he covers it multiple times with a sumac glaze to add layers of flavor, then serves it with quinoa tabbouleh, baharat-spiced walnuts, cherries, fresh mint and dill ($18, recipe).
The inspiration for Alon Shaya’s wood-fired cabbage at Shaya in New Orleans came from family. He looks to his grandmother’s stuffed cabbage, especially the ones that retained the caramelization and sweetness from the bottom of the pot. To accomplish those textures he first sous vides a whole cabbage for six hours before cutting it into wedges and roasting it at 800 degrees F in the wood-fired oven. The dish is served with a hazelnut and pomegranate muhammara ($12, recipe). “As you begin to mix in the muhammara served on the side, the flavor of the roasted peppers and toasted hazelnuts nestles in between the cabbage layers, giving you a sense it has all been cooked together for hours,” he says. “I wanted to get that charred flavor I loved so much from my childhood in every bite. Seeing the outside charred layers of the cabbage leaves encompassing the tender green inside leaves was my goal.”
Samantha Lande is a Chicago-based writer.