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A-Z of Vegetables: Red cabbage

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 21 Nov 2023, 17:41

It’s very hard not to believe in magic when there’s such a thing as red cabbage in the world. As a child, it was always fun ruminating on why it was called ‘red cabbage’ – had they not invented purple at the time – but that’s before you get onto the astounding behaviour of the cabbage in regard to its own colour. The vegetable appears to have taken the semantic quibble of its name very personally: just watch when you cook it plainly, or even just bruise it: what is that colour? No foods are truly, naturally that colour, even blueberries are grey-violet. But no, red cabbage is, in fact… blue cabbage.

It’s something to do with its chemistry. Basically, red cabbage is what’s known as a ‘universal indicator’, meaning that it changes colour depending on the acidity (or alkalinity) of its environment – like litmus paper. Hence, if you’ve been busy braising red cabbage and you don’t want to put off your dinner guests with what looks like mutilated Smurfs, then simply add some vinegar or something else acidic and it will automatically become purple again. Add some more, and it turns pink. That’s because Acidity is Pink and Alkalinity is Blue (which was the title of my imaginary PhD).

The most common way of eating red cabbage is probably at Christmas, as part of the traffic-light vegetable medley of braised cabbage, roast carrots and growling sprouts. However, you can eat red cabbage like any other cabbage too: boiled like white cabbage, stir-fried like Savoy cabbage, raw like Sweetheart cabbage. In fact it is in its raw form that I most implore you to try it. You have to use red cabbage for coleslaw. You must, you must, you must. Who doesn’t want purple coleslaw? I do. Add beetroot too and your toilet visits will be as pink as the rose-tinted spectacles you’re wearing to cope with me mentioning toilets in a food article.

I have a big space in my heart for red cabbage. Actually, my heart probably is a red cabbage. In flavour terms, I think of cabbage as coming into your cottage from a long but refreshing country walk in the rain. I once read a recipe for game chips which said that it’s hard to say how many the recipe feeds because people generally eat as much as you put in front of them. I’m like that but with red cabbage.

Roast red cabbage burgers which you could pretend are actually burgers if you’re in the mood to insult somebody’s intelligence. To serve 3.

  1. Preheat the oven to 190ºC fan and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. This is because I do not believe in scraping burnt sticky bits off sheets of metal but if you are of a different persuasion, feel free to do what you want. I’m not washing up.
  2. Wash your 1 red cabbage and if any of the leaves are revolting, remove them. If they’re blue, that’s fine. Red cabbage is actually blue. Which only sounds insane if you think about it.
  3. Turn the cabbage upside down and cut the cabbage into slices using the core as a guide: you want to cut the core into 4 pieces, and the rest of the cabbage therefore into 4 slices.
  4. Put the slices of cabbage on the baking tray and sprinkle a pinch of salt onto each cabbage slice, paying particular attention to the core – this will help them soften. Using 4 tbsp quince jelly (optional but ambrosial), spread quince jelly across each cabbage. 
  5. Into a small jar with a lid, pour 1 tbsp oil, 1 tsp balsamic, cider or red wine vinegar and 2 tsp mustard, then put the lid on and shake it up, then pour the contents over the cabbage slices. Roast the cabbage slices for 30 minutes. Whilst you’re at it, maybe you should roast some tofu and other bits and pieces for dinner. Toss the chopped tofu in cornflour and ground pepper, drizzle with oil and roast it too.
  6. The best thing to do is get out a slice of bread so when the cabbage is cooked, it can get slipped onto the bread with all its divinely purple cooking juices.
  7. Look, the cores of the slices will still be tough. Edible, but tough. You don’t have to eat them! You can cut them out and chuck them in the soup or sauce you’re making tomorrow! You could blitz them into a smoothie! You could fry them into soffritto! But if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to eat mine anyway.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Quince

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Friday, 10 Nov 2023, 10:30

One Saturday, I got home from the rather middle-class activity of buying fresh croissants from the local market for a late breakfast, and returned instead with a brown bag of ominous, hairy orbs.

‘What on earth are they?’ My flatmate demanded.

‘Quinces,’ I grinned.

‘Why are they hairy?’

‘I’m not sure. And get out from behind that sideboard. It’s just a fruit.’

Ah, I have given myself away now. You thought a quince might be a vegetable, didn’t you? You were expecting some sort of cousin of the cucumber, the one with the deformations which the family keep away in the west wing of the castle whilst they play croquet with the neighbours – because quinces seem very Victorian, and look like the fruit of a Gothic novel. They behave like the fruit of a Gothic novel too: when cooked and therefore loved, they are coral-pink, glassy fruits with the texture of fresh, salted butter; when uncooked and therefore completely inedible, they are jaundiced yellow with a tight knot of poisonous pips in the centre, covered in a patchy brown fuzz and so fucking hard that you will bruise your chopping board trying to core them. 

Quinces need to be shown love to be beautiful. Love is pain. The love of quince is a pain in the arse.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy and eat quince. You absolutely should buy and eat quince. Quarter and core them and roast them for an hour, as you would a potato. Quarter and core them and grate them into an apple crumble or tarte tatin. Jelly them, jam them, make mincemeat out of them (Nigel Slater has a recipe), whatever you do, just buy the blasted things. Yes they’re a faff, but things that delicious must be indulged. Quinces are described in The Flavour Thesaurus as having a flavour like a cross between apple, pear, honey, rose and exotic fruit, except – in my opinion – far better than that actually sounds. It doesn’t taste in any way like Marie Antoinette’s bathwater, but instead like the sort of thing the Greek gods would eat on Mount Olympus after a good day of free love, smiting and turning people into flowers. 

Their scent is very powerful too – leave a bowlful in the fridge for two hours and every time you open the door you’ll be blasted with a resiny wine fragrance which completely blunts the edge off your hunger. So very useful for dieters to have in the house.

I must confess, I don’t even buy quinces regularly (and my paring knife has taken out a restraining order against the fruit), but I try to keep the agriculture of them going by buying quince jelly whenever possible, from brands such as Tiptree or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference. Sometimes it’s called quince paste or membrillo, which is the same but thick. Heap it onto a crumpet and let your shoulders sink with its heavenly delights.

Oh, and by the way – don’t peel them. Just don’t. The hairy fuzz washes off really easily and all the flavour is in their skin. I learnt this the hard way when I made quince crumble with peeled quinces that had all the flavour of a wine gum from 1997. Don’t repeat my mistakes. Good luck and god speed quinces in your direction.

Quince crumble – mmmm for 2 but if it’s just you, save one half for breakfast tomorrow

  1. If you know a foodie friend or an axe-wielding maniac, invite them and their strongest knife around for an evening of fun chopping. Or roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. Don’t drink a protein shake beforehand, you’ll spoil your appetite. Anyway, wash the fuzz from 2 fist-sized quinces, then quarter them, remove their cores and slip them into a pot which contains 750ml boiling water and 100g sugar. Simmer for 40 minutes, then drain but reserve the liquid. Leave to cool enough to dice into a smallish crumble dish. Grate half of the pieces to have a more apple crumble-like texture. Keep the skin on the quince – it’s not texturally noticeable in the eating.
  2. The reason I suggest you boil them for so long at the beginning is because it’s a hell of a lot easier than dicing them raw.
  3. Preheat the oven to 200ºC fan. Make crumble with your usual method. For a pudding basin of 1.2 l, I use 75g plain flour, 25g wholemeal flour, 1/2 tsp baking powder and 50g cold, cubed vegan butter or margarine (fat content minimum 70%). Rub the fat into the flours until the texture of breadcrumbs or lumpy sand, then using a fork, stir in 40g granulated sugar (big-grained sugars make better crumble). Put the crumble in the fridge until ready to use.
  4. When the oven is up to temperature, stir 1 tbsp quince jelly into the quince in the pudding dish, plus 4 tbsp quince-boiling liquid. We are going Owl-and-Pussycat levels of quince here. Gently pour over the crumble and spread it out flat, then sprinkle 1 tbsp porridge oats over the top, like my Grandma always does. Whack the crumble in the oven for 30-45 minutes until the crumble topping is crisp to the touch.
  5. Let it cool down for 20 minutes or so once out of the oven, and use this time to make some decent vegan custard. I use Bird’s custard powder, following the packet instructions but halving the quantities and adding 1 tsp vanilla extract at the end. The only stipulation when making vegan custard is you cannot use oat milk. It does not work. At least not for me. I hope oat milks haven’t collectively taken out a vendetta against me. And for quince crumble, avoid strong-tasting plant milks like coconut or hazelnut. You want the kindly mellowness of soya or almond milk instead. Invite the axe-wielding maniac back to meditatively stir the custard, because it will calm them down enough to realise that there’s more to life than wielding axes. 

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A-Z of Vegetables: Fennel

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 21 Nov 2023, 17:43

There are two types of people in this world. No, I know people have said this a lot in a variety of humorous deviations (emphasis on the deviance) but I mean it this time. Because there are two types of people in this world. People who like liquorice and sad people.

Liquorice, as the most intense member of the anise flavour family, blows your socks off with a satanically sweet darkness you thought was reserved only for molasses, raw cacao and committing arson on a candy-floss factory. If you’ve never tasted liquorice before, you’re just going to have to taste it; it’s of that rare breed of flavours, along with quince and violet, which is so wholly unique that describing it in terms of other things is both futile and reductionist. Imagine crude oil but for eating and you’re not far off.

As intoxicating as liquorice is, like all sweets, it’s not something you can eat regularly. Also it has laxative properties and that’s not the most appealing thing at a dinner party. That’s why we liquorice-lovers eat it in secret, away from liquorice-haters’ sad, judgmental eyes. Fortunately, for people craving an aniseed hit without the sugar can resort to fennel which, sliced finely and eaten raw, tastes like liquorice in salad form. Being also a big fan of vegetables, this is as close to flavour nirvana as its possible for a liquorice-lover to get. Or it is until I invent chocolate-flavoured cauliflower. Watch this space.

Fennel can be stir-fried, sautéd, gratin-ed, braised, roasted, baked, souped, puréed, juiced, candied and thrown out of the window at passing seagulls but for me, my favourite way to eat fennel is simply raw, thereby preserving as much of its flavour and satisfying crunch as possible. I also realise that it’s not possible to give a recipe for eating fennel raw (wash it, slice it, chew ostentatiously because there’s no other way to chew it). So I decided to go down the extravagant route, play up the confectionery which inspired my love for fennel, and do something I’ve never done before: namely, turning fennel into a pudding. I’m candying it. This essentially amounts to boiling it in syrup. Don’t panic, it’s very easy. Not so easy that you would let a child do it, because they might lick the spoon OF BOILING SUGAR, but easy enough.

Candied fennel – it’s really simpler than the length of this recipe implies

  1. Quarter 1 fennel and give a quick wash behind the thick outermost leaves in case of dirt. Often fennels don’t have this problem, but better safe than muddy. Now cut each quarter in half, keeping the core on each slice intact.
  2. Put the fennel quarters into a small saucepan so they’re all snugly tucked in. Just cover with cold water, then measure how much this water is and make a note of it. Bring to the boil.
  3. Remember how you had to measure how much water you covered your fennel with? Measure out enough granulated or caster sugar to match the weight of water, i.e. 200ml water means use 200g sugar. Add in 1 tsp fennel seeds for extra liquoriceness, heat until the sugar dissolves and simmer the mixture for 18-20 minutes until the liquorice is glassily translucent and butter-soft.
  4. Remove the fennel quarters from the syrup and lay out on some greaseproof paper – this is by far the easiest way to ‘dry’ candied food, because the syrup drips off and is absorbed by the paper, which you then ostentatiously throw in the bin.
  5. Boil down the syrup until it’s the consistency of runny honey, then pour into a clean, airtight container (a jug and clingfilm will do) and put in the fridge to use in place of golden syrup when you make flapjacks tomorrow.
  6. Eat the candied fennel, once cool, with yoghurt and grated chocolate as an elegant pudding for two, or go one further by baking a large round of shortbread for the yogurt, fennel and chocolate to sit on. Do this by beating together 50g vegan butter and 25g sugar until light and fluffy, and then gently incorporating 75g flour (not rye) until a dough forms. Pat out on a lined baking tray to a round 1cm-thick, then bake for 15 minutes at 180ºC or 160ºC fan until pale golden. Leave to cool before transferring to a plate to load up and slice like a pavlova.

Notes: I’ve cheerily kept the syrup from step 5 for a week in the fridge, and you could equally use it in tea, coffee, hot chocolate, custard, salad dressings, acidic tomato sauces, gingerbread, cocktails – wherever there’s need for sweetening liquids or use of syrups.

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