Cabbage and spice and everything nice…

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Mornin’ all.

Welp, it’s 4:12 a.m. I’m halfway through a double dose of morning rotgut, and three songs into a dubstep phase I’m flat out refusing to apologize for.

I woke up highly alert about an hour ago, spiced pickled cabbage on my mind. I could not stop thinking about it. Obviously I couldn’t possibly get back to sleep after that.

It’s my own fault, really. Last night I made a batch of sweet onions to put on hot dogs because…well, they’re hot dogs. I’d never besmirch our national tube meat, but I think everyone will agree hot dogs need SOMEthing to make them taste like they aren’t just lips and assholes we crammed into a bun-friendly shape.

Now hang on. I’ve got nothing against lips and assholes. I think we should use all we can of an animal. Well, maybe not the eyes. Especially if they’re shoved up rectums to be smuggled out of a meat packing plant…

sidebar: That story is definitely a front runner for best of the worst news of 2015 in my book. Butt eyeball soup. Yeah. Still gross.

…or livers and kidneys. I know they have great protein blah blah. But when you think of their bodily function…ew. I’m not starving. If I was starving, I bet they’d look pretty damn appealing. And if that’s what I had to do, that’s how I’d roll. I’m not there yet in life *knock wood*. Lips and assholes are fine, though.

Oh, wait…I also can’t do brains. There have been many cultures through history that would eat the brain specifically to absorb the knowledge and experience and essence of the animal. I think that’s why I WON’T eat brains. I do not want to risk sampling calf brain only to wake up the next morning with an overwhelming urge to graze in the dewy lea.

Nope. I’d much rather wake up the next morning with an overwhelming craving for spiced pickled cabbage.

My dad used to make pickled items from time to time. His mum was Polish, and she liked to feature many pickled selections at large dinners. My mum’s family is not polish, but my grandparents on her side had an enormous garden when we were young and also used to pickle veggies, too. The two pickling camps were very different. The Polish pickled foods often had a mulled spice element to them, even the ones that were savory and not sweet, while the British camp offered crisp flavors, like classic dill and mustard.

I’m guessing a fair amount of you reading this have only had straight up cucumber pickles before. At least when I was in school, that was the case among my friends. Pickling seemed to be passe in the 80’s and 90’s. It was almost a lost art.

However, pickling looks to be making a comeback. Several judges on many cooking shows now get giddy when someone pickles something. I don’t know if pickling will ever enjoy the rockstar hype that mango salsa got in the early 2000’s, but it should. Pickled anything is better than mango salsa.

…er, maybe not pigs feet.

We don’t do much pickling in classic American cooking, do we? I think our ancestors pretty much tended to view pickling as a necessary evil for food preservation. I think pickling fell out of favor when refrigerators and freezers became every-household items. There’s no “need” to pickle when you can just deep freeze your food.

Other cultures use pickling as a preservative method, too, of course. However, I think that the pickled foods of other cultures endured through the introduction of modern methods of preservation (and will continue to endure) for the simple fact that they taste much better.

Over here, we Yanks pickle with salt brine and vinegar. That’s about it. That’s the classic “American” style of pickling. Add salt, drown in vinegar, let that shit sit for a couple months. Won’t kill ya, will it? So what the hell are you complaining about? Eat yer vittles.

Other cultures were far smarter. They didn’t want to die from their food, true. But unlike we yokels, they wanted their food to actually taste good in the end. Peppers and garlic, anise and allspice, ginger and lime and radish and all sorts of yummy flavors were added to the brines of the world. Dill is about as wild as we got over here. Is it any wonder pickling fell out of favor in the average American home?

Or really any surprise that with our now incredibly global food culture, these flavorful types of pickled cuisine are impressing food contest judges?

Spiced pickled cabbage would impress the food judges. One taste, and I guarantee they’d be outright embarrassed that they ever touted mango salsa as THE thing. I mean, they should be embarrassed anyway…

My dad would take cabbage and onions and slice them very, very thin. He’d make a brine of apple cider vinegar, salt, and sugar, then add allspice, cloves, cinnamon sticks, and celery seed. He’d steep that together until the brine browned from the dark spices, then pour it over the cabbage and onions in canning jars. The jars would be processed, and after the lids were carefully checked, he’d declare the canning a success and let us know we could eat the delicious treat!

…in six weeks. *sigh*

I hated the waiting. It’s probably why I mostly just stick with refrigerator pickling now. It’s much faster, though not quite the same. Still, I get my spiced pickled cabbage sooner, and if there’s one thing I’m truly a fan of, it’s instant gratification.

I craved this cabbage, folks. When I was pregnant with my second progeny, I begged my dad to make me a batch. He did, and sent over four pints of it with the strict instruction that I wait the FULL six weeks, young lady. He didn’t work that hard to have me rip into it and eat it before it ripened, you know.

It was all gone less than a week later.

My craving, however, persisted. Hat in hand, I went begging for more. At that point in my life, spiced pickled cabbage was my crack. I was pregnant with his grandkid, so that kept him from getting too annoyed that I hadn’t waited and couldn’t possibly have enjoyed the cabbage to the fullest. Still, I only got one additional jar, and that had to last me. Another grandson only went so far, I suppose.

Coincidentally, that bun in the oven is now one of the teens and loves pickled items. He’s my adventurous buddy in culinary escapades. Odd, too, since he’s my Aspergian who went through a very long phase of only eating spherical foods when he was young. I got incredibly good at rolling grilled cheese sandwiches into balls.

True story.

Anyway, I went to the local store here in town for the onions yesterday. Maybe my hankering for spiced pickled cabbage began before the sweet onions, now that I think about it, since I wandered slightly to the left of the onions to look at the cabbages in the produce aisle.

Local produce is finally starting to trickle in. Really, it’s a crap year for gardening around here. They were offering the tiniest heads of cabbage I have ever seen. They looked like no more than jacked up Brussels sprouts. I just couldn’t justify spending sixty cents a pound on what would no doubt be mostly stem and heart.

And don’t EVEN get me started on what they want for local tomatoes!

I suppose my spiced pickled cabbage will have to wait, though this hankering is something fierce. It woke me up, folks.

“Uh oh, Bethie! Is it possible that you’re pre…”

GAH NO! Don’t even bother finishing that thought. No, it’s not possible. I’m just an aging Polak gripped by a fit of nostalgia.

My dad was funny on pickling days. He was an engineer, not just in trade but by genetics. He approached any project with a high degree of planning. In fact, we used to joke about it. He did this thing when he had a blank piece of paper before a project. He’d hold a pencil, as if poised to write, but he wouldn’t write anything. He’d stare at the blank page for a minute, then flick his pinkie over the paper, like you might do if you were clearing eraser bits off after a mistake. He’d then flex his hand, position it to write, and flick with his pinkie again.

There were times when he’d do this a dozen times or more before actually beginning to write. I guess that was his process. I have odd things I do when I’m thinking, too. I suppose everyone does. Me, I’ll tap my nails on my coffee cup in an incredibly annoying manner, or stare blankly at a child until they squirm with discomfort.

Don’t worry. I stare at one of my children, not someone else’s. Jeez. What kind of monster do you think I am? I only give my OWN children complexes.

Anyway, Dad approached pickling in the same overly-designed manner in which he approached pretty much everything else. He’d start at dawn and wouldn’t be done until afternoon. The slicing of the veggies was done just so. The measuring of the spices was absolute. The sterilization of the canning jars would have made any high tech lab take notes.

Can’t argue with his results, though. Er, as long as he pickled anything but cucumbers. He made a very tasty brine for classic pickles, but he could never figure out the trick to keeping them crunchy. It came down to processing time and not removing the bud end from the cuke, though I never said, and he wouldn’t have listened even if I had. So cukes weren’t my dad’s specialty.

But boy, could he pickle the hell out of a cabbage.

Refrigerator-method Spiced Pickled Cabbage

2 cups apple cider vinegar

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup white sugar

3 T salt (I use sea or kosher salt when I’m pickling, but you can use whatever salt you like)

1/4 tsp alum

1 T whole cloves

1 T celery seed

1 palm full whole allspice

4 cinnamon sticks

1 large head of cabbage

2 large onions

1. Slice cabbage and onions very, very thin. No half-assing this step. We want thin ribbons, folks, not band aid sized strips of laziness. No one wants to think of a band aid while eating. No one.

2. Find a plastic or glass container that looks to be just big enough to hold the sliced cabbage and onions fairly tightly. The veg will wilt and pack down while pickling, and a tight start will ensure that the brine covers the veg. NEVER use a metal container when pickling. Like, ever. It makes your hard work taste like gross, tinny dirt. You can either use a tall, skinny bowl (that’s my go-to) that you cover in plastic wrap (NOT foil!!), or Tupperware or Ziploc containers. I’d definitely use a more secure container if you plan on keeping the cabbage around for a few weeks. A saran wrapped bowl works if you’re like me, and can’t stop eating it.

3. “Pack the cabbage and onions in alternating layers in the storage container or jar.” That’s how the original recipe says to do, but the only purpose of making layers is to ensure an even mix of onions and cabbage. You don’t have to layer them. The layers are going to get screwed up a few steps from now anyway. Maybe you don’t want to have a perfect blend. Maybe you’re a roll-the-dice kinda person and are willing to risk getting a higher ratio of cabbage to onions than the recipe writer intended. Did that dude know you? Know your tastes? Awful presumptuous, don’t you think? You do what you want with the mixture. Layer, don’t layer…let your inner hippie free and see what happens.

4. In a saucepan, bring the vinegars, sugar, salt, alum and spices to a boil. Turn it to low and simmer for five minutes. At this point, you’ll see that the mix has turned from light amber to a dark, chocolaty color and the smell in your house will be incredible.

5. Remove the brine from the heat and immediately pour over the cabbage and onions. Notice that I did NOT tell you to strain out the whole allspice, cloves, and cinnamon sticks. They won’t soften much as they sit, and you can’t eat them. Well, I suppose technically you *could*…but trust me, you don’t want to. However, they have not given their all yet. Leave them in during pickling and pick them out before eating once all is said and done. Any dinner guests can pick them out as well. You don’t have to hold your friends’ hands through life. What, are you going to cut their steak for them, too? Pfft. Your dinner table should not be a nanny state.

6. Once you pour the hot brine over the cabbage, don’t stir it yet. I’m not sure why. That’s what the recipe says, and it’s easier, so that’s what I always do. Now I’m curious, though. If you buck the system and stir at this point, drop me a line and let me know the results of your rebellion. Otherwise, stick with the status quo and let the concoction sit on the counter undisturbed for two hours. You can loosely cover your container with plastic wrap or a paper towel if you’re that afraid of flies, but do NOT snap a lid on yet or secure the plastic wrap tightly. There has to be room for the steam to escape.

7. After two hours, carefully stir the mixture. You should see a great deal of wilting now. I told you it would wilt down. You doubted me, didn’t you? It’s okay to be honest and admit your doubt. It’s our first recipe share and I’m an unknown entity. But as you can see, it wilted. I think we’ve established trust here. Now, if you didn’t know it, wilted cabbage and onions are hard to stir. The thin ribbons of increasing deliciousness want to clump together. The best method is to use a large fork and turn the mixture, more than “stir” it, like you sauce spaghetti. You are basically trying to accomplish two things here. First, you want to give the cabbage and onions that have been at the top and might not have been completely submerged a chance to be thoroughly drenched in brine. And second, you need to get those yummy spices that stayed on the top when you poured distributed through the cabbage. Forks are the best method, but as long as you get it mixed, any way you accomplish this is up to you.

8. At this point, you *could* eat the cabbage. It won’t be as flavorful as it will be if you wait a few days, but it will be pretty damn tasty. Go on. Try it.

9. Now, stop eating it, because waiting will yield an even better reward. I promise it will be worth it. Now is the time to properly cover your container. It’s safe to snap a lid on tight if you’re using Tupperware or Ziploc containers, or to tightly wrap it in plastic wrap. Put it in the fridge and let it sit to cold pickle, stirring it once a day for the next three days. After that, it’s fully brined. It’s as pickled as it’s going to get. In this state, it’ll stay edible for months. As long as there’s no mold on top, it’s good to go.

I know we don’t usually do recipes here. And I’m not going to make it a habit. I was hoping that maybe writing it out would be enough to quell the craving since I am currently sans cabbage. Alas, the hankering grew. Perhaps I will venture to the big city to find a cabbagener with better wares than the local grocer has to offer. Or suck it up and pay the highway robbery prices for the sprouts on steroids.

Either way, you can bet your sweet bippy that by the end of the day, the House of Bethie will smell like mulled spices and anticipation. Hope yours does, too.

Thus concludes my cooking lesson for Thursday, August 21, 2015. In the course of typing this ramble, I got so jacked up on coffee that my jittery hands spilled said coffee all over my keyboard. I can’t help but tip my hat to the cosmos for that prank. Well played, cosmos. Well played indeed.