NO ONE in his right mind would think of any place other than Ireland at the mention of corned beef and cabbage. Rightly so, yet "corned beef" as we know it in the United States in not exclusively Irish. Very similar ways of preparing briskets and other cuts of beef have been used for centuries in all parts of Europe, from Poland and Russia to France, and from Norway and Sweden to Italy, Yugoslavia and the northern parts of Greece and Bulgaria. Sometimes the brine used for curing is mixed with different spices and herbs, or the method is slightly altered, but the results are always similar to the corned beef we know and enjoy.
In American markets you can now find many brands of ready-to-cook corned beef. If you follow the instructions on the package, you can sucessfully cook corned beef even if you are a beginner. But then, what you do with the cabbage can make all the difference in the meal.
I had a favorite aunt who became a widow at an early age and raised a large family on a small farm. She was a wizard at making very inexpensive, simple ingredients into fabulous dishes. She had her own corned beef, which she kept, if I recall correctly, all through the winter in a big, strong-smelling wooden barrel in her "cold pantry." With a long, wooden-handled fork she would fish out a 5-pound piece of corned beef from the mysterious liquid full of spices (among them small Hungarian dry paprika pods, similar to certain kinds of Mexican chili), and she would cook it slowly at the back of her large brick-and-clay stove, away from the fire and close to the chimney.
She kept her cabbage in a dug-in cellar in the backyard, where she also kept potatoes, parsnips and parsley roots buried in the sand, as well as kohlrabi, turnips, celery roots and other vegetables. She had lots of cabbage, and she used it in imaginative ways. With corned beef, she could cut a large head of cabbage into eight wedges and turn a simple dish into something heavenly. I tried it in our test kitchen, and it was very successful. Here is the recipe. If you have some time on your hands and not much money in your pocket, and you want a dish you can show off, this is it. AUNT NELLY'S CABBAGE CUTLETS (4 servings) 1 medium head cabbage, 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 pounds 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons salt 6 to 8 black peppercorns, bruised 1 bay leaf 1teaspoon sugar 1/4 cup white vinegar for each quart of water used to simmer cabbage 1 cup flour, run through a sieve 3 eggs beaten with 3 tablespoons cold water 3 to 4 cups good breadcrumbs 2 to 3 cups oil or other shortening
Cut cabbage carefully into 8 wedges, being sure that all cuts go through whole length of core. Do not remove core. Place wedges flat on their sides in a pot large enough to hold them all. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil over medium heat. As soon as water starts to boil, remove from heat and discard water without disturbing cabbage.
Add salt, peppercorns, bay leaf, sugar, vinegar and water to cover. Bring to a simmer over low heat. Simmer until thicker, outside leaves are still firm but barely fork-tender.
Carefully remove cabbage with a slotted spoon to a large tray on which you can place wedges side by side without overlapping. Tilt tray to drain. Let cabbage stand until cool and dry.
Place cooled wedges next to one another, core up, like melon wedges. Press each gently with your palm to remove any remaining liquid. If you have another tray the same size, gently press second tray the same size, gently press second tray on top of wedges after you press them with your palm. This will give the wedges a nice oval shape.
Through a sieve, dust wedges on all sides with flour. Dip carefully, one by one, into egg wash, then coat with breadcrumbs. (Put each wedge first on top of a mound of breadcrumbs, sprinkle top with more breadcrumbs, then press with your palm. Each wedge should look like a thick breaded cutlet.)
This much you can do the day before or early in the day, then keep the breaded cabbage cutlets on a tray covered with paper towels or waxed paper.
About 30 minutes before serving, heat 2/3 of the oil in a skillet large enough to hold 4 cutlets at once. When oil is hot, ease in 4 cutlets with a spatula. Cook until lightly browned, then turn and repeat. Remove to paper towels and keep warm. Add remaining oil to skillet, heat and fry remaining 4 cutlets.
To serve, arrange sliced corned beef and cabbage cutlets on a large serving platter. It you wish, decorate with parsley. Offer with a mustard mayonnaise made by adding as much prepared mustard to a cup of mayonnaise as you like. To be fancier, add a couple tablespoons of white wine with the mustard.