Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Eating. mon petit choux.

The French term of endearment, mon petit choux, has always struck me as peculiar. I love cabbage as much as the next person, but to refer to your loved one as 'my little cabbage' has always seemed a little strange. Or perhaps not strange, because if love is being unable to live without something or someone, then I know I could never live without cabbage. (Except for coleslaw. I hate coleslaw, but then, if you've been paying attention, you know I have a deep-seated fear and loathing of raw vegetables).

I have often read of that Irish dish they call colcannon, mashed potatoes and boiled cabbage all mixed together with chopped spring onions, but I have never tasted it. Perhaps it is better this way. I don't think it could live up to my imagining, the way I have never tried to make the pickled red cabbage that I became addicted to in Prague, glowing deep red against the plate, a little tangy, a little sweet, because it would never match my memory of it. Sometimes I stand in front of a neatly arranged bank of red cabbage heads at the grocery store, gleaming from periodic sprays of water, and think about the science experiments we made with red cabbage juice in fifth grade, testing the acidity and alkalinity of various things.

One August I spent a month in Moscow on a school exchange; just before sending me off on a short excursion to St. Petersburg, my host mother handed me a small package wrapped in plastic wrap, a round golden pastry. The train rumbled away all through the night as we sat in our bunks and talked for hours, and in the morning as the train pulled into the station I unwrapped my little package to find a piroshky, the pastry buttery and flaky, filled with chopped cabbage and bits of hard-boiled egg. I have eaten many cabbage piroshky since, but none has taste so good as the one I ate in the early morning that long-ago August.

At home cabbage was Napa cabbage, elongated white heads with ruffly green leaves, sliced across in two-inch sections, braising in its own juices, sprinkled with those tiny dried shrimp that were revived in boiling water before they were added to the cabbage, salty and chewy. Or it would be simmered in chicken broth with chunks of soft tofu. Perhaps there would be regular green cabbage, the smooth green head sliced open to reveal kinked leaves tightly entangled that would loosen and fall apart as you cooked them. The neatly split head of cabbage always made me think of illustrations of the cross-section of a human brain in my science book.

And there are Brussels sprouts, which look even more like tiny green brains. Little green balls of death, my favorite produce purveyor in the Pike Place market calls them. I remember standing at the sink, trimming the stems and marking an X in the clean flat space left by my paring knife; they would be steamed until just tender. Now I am lazy and merely trim the sprouts and slice them in half, sauté them in olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Like tonight. There is a steak, juicy and perfectly medium-rare and crusty on both sides, there is bread from my favorite bakery. And there are Brussels sprouts, golden-brown around the edges, sautéed briefly and then left to steam for a little bit, with bits of bacon mixed in. Dinner for one, mon petit choux.

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