Even in the depths of winter, the display in our local supermarket is lavish. Recently, as my eyes wandered from shiitake mushrooms to ugli fruit and Singapore starfruit, it was hard to focus on the humble cabbage amid such abundance.
Yet what is wrong with such commoners as cabbage, carrots, onions, rutabagas and the much maligned potato? Pears and apples in January must surely be better than imported strawberries that have traveled thousands of miles. Plain old parsley beats dried tarragon or basil any day, fashionable and delicious though those herbs may be in summer when they are fresh.
So one day I toured the market deliberately collecting ordinary ingredients that tend to be ignored. The challenge is to combine this refreshingly low-priced produce with a touch of originality. Starting with white winter cabbage, I assembled a hearty soup based on chicken broth and flavored with bacon and caraway (now there's a neglected spice). Sprinkled with cheese and browned under the broiler, a large bowl of it makes an ample meal in itself.
At the meat counter, beef was the obvious choice. I'm prepared to defend the exellence of American beef against all comers, yet during the past decade sales have been dropping steadily in favor of white meats such as veal and chicken. The higher cholesterol content of beef must be a consideration, but that should not ban it completely from the table, especially in cold weather.
This recipe for braised beef, paired with the assertive flavor of a mustard cream sauce and flanked by baby onions and garlic cloves roasted whole in the oven, can claim Flemish ancestry. A colorful accompaniment would be buttered carrots or red cabbage, and perhaps braised endive or brussels sprouts to develop the Flemish theme.
What could be more commonplace than apples and bread? And this dessert combines the two in a version of the traditional French apple charlotte, served hot or cold with a fruit sauce. Bread slices are dipped in butter to line a skillet that is filled with stiff, well-flavored apple pure'e. After baking in the oven, the bread toasts to a crisp luscious brown. Outmoded? Not at all. These days bread-and-butter pudding appears beside sorbets and snow eggs on the most avant-garde of American tables. Timetable
A perfect schedule for the busy cook; all dishes can be prepared up to 3 days ahead and reheated in the evening.
Up to 3 days ahead: Make cabbage soup and refrigerate. Braise beef and refrigerate, wrapped in foil, separate from sauce and garnish. Bake apple charlotte and leave in skillet in refrigerator. Make apricot sauce and refrigerate.
One hour before serving: Chill the wine. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Set the table.
30 minutes before serving: Put beef in oven to reheat.
10 minutes before serving: If serving apple pudding hot, put in oven to reheat. Light broiler; reheat soup on top of stove, add cheese, broil and serve.
After serving soup: Lower oven heat and keep pudding warm. Reheat sauce and garnish for beef on top of stove. Slice beef, add garnish and sauce, and serve.
After serving beef: If serving pudding hot, reheat apricot sauce on top of stove. Unmold apple pudding and serve. CABBAGE SOUP WITH CARAWAY (8 servings)
For a main course soup, add more bacon and a few slices of spicy cooked sausage.
1 pound head white cabbage
4 ounces sliced bacon, diced
1 onion, chopped
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1 medium carrot, finely diced
1 small potato, finely diced
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, more if necessary
1 teaspoon caraway seeds, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup (3 1/2 ounces) coarsely grated gruye re or swiss cheese
Finely shred cabbage, discarding stems and thick stalks. In a casserole, fry bacon until lightly browned. Discard excess fat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until soft but not brown. Stir in flour and cook 1 minute. Whisk in chicken stock, bring to a boil and add cabbage, carrot, potato, vinegar, caraway seeds, salt and pepper.
Simmer soup uncovered, stirring often, until vegetables are very tender, about 30 minutes. Season the soup, adding salt, pepper and more vinegar to taste. This can be prepared up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated.
To finish: Light the broiler. Bring soup to boil on top of the stove. Spoon it into 8 deep heat-proof soup bowls and sprinkle with cheese. Set bowls on a baking sheet, and broil until cheese melts and browns. Serve at once. BRAISED BEEF FLAMANDE (8 servings)
If you prefer, the baked garlic can be omitted, but add a few extra onions.
1 calf's or pig's foot, split (optional)
1 tablespoon oil
5 to 6 pounds boneless beef pot roast, rolled and tied
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups white wine
2 cups beef stock, more if needed
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons oil, more if necessary
1 1/2 pounds baby onions, peeled
3/4 pound garlic bulbs, divided in cloves and peeled
FOR THE SAUCE:
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
2 tablespoons dijon mustard, or to taste
If using calf's or pig's foot, blanch it by putting in cold water, boiling 5 minutes and draining thoroughly. Heat oven to 325 degrees.
In a large casserole, heat oil and brown beef on all sides very thoroughly over high heat. Lower heat, add chopped onion and brown also, stirring. Stir in flour and cook until starting to brown, about 1 minute. Stir in wine and simmer until reduced by half. Add stock, bay leaves, salt and pepper and tuck calf's or pig's foot down beside meat.
Cover and braise beef in 325-degree oven until very tender when pierced with a two-pronged fork, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Turn meat from time to time and add more stock if pan gets dry.
For garnish: Put baby onions in a shallow baking dish with half the oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir until coated. Repeat with garlic cloves, remaining oil, salt and pepper in a separate dish. Bake onions and garlic uncovered in oven with beef until tender and golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes for garlic and 30 to 50 minutes for onions, depending on size. Stir occasionally and sprinkle with more oil if either start to char.
When beef is cooked, remove it and discard strings. Strain sauce into a separate pan. Calf's or pig's foot may be discarded, or meat can be removed from bones, chopped and added to sauce.
Bring sauce to a boil, add cream and boil until it lightly coats back of a spoon. Take from heat and whisk in mustard, salt and pepper to taste. Stir in garnish. Beef, garnish and sauce can be prepared up to 3 days ahead. Wrap beef in foil and refrigerate it, with sauce and garnish.
To finish: Reheat beef in foil in a 350-degree oven until very hot, 20 to 30 minutes. Reheat garnish in sauce on top of stove. Note: Do not boil or mustard will be bitter.
To serve: Carve beef in thick slices and arrange overlapping on a platter. Spoon garnish around it with a little sauce and decorate platter with watercress. Serve remaining sauce separately. SKILLET APPLE BREAD PUDDING (8 servings)
A less lofty version of the famous French molded apple charlotte, this pudding is easy to turn out without collapse.
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter
5 pounds tart apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
Pared rind and juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup sugar, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
1 tablespoon applejack brandy or cognac (optional)
10 to 12 slices thinly sliced white bread, crusts discarded
Dried apricot sauce (recipe below) or other fruit sauce
Spread bottom of a heavy casserole with 2 tablespoons butter. Add apple slices, lemon peel and juice and press a piece of buttered foil on top. Add lid and heat pan on top of stove until hot. Transfer to a 400-degree oven and cook, stirring occasionally, until apples are very soft, 25 to 30 minutes.
Stir sugar into pure'e with cinnamon, if using. Replace pan, uncovered, in oven and cook, stirring often, until pure'e is thick and rich, 25 to 30 minutes. Note: If pure'e is too soft, pudding will be soggy. Discard lemon peel, stir in applejack or cognac and taste, adding more cinnamon or sugar if desired.
Butter an 8- to 9-inch skillet and line base with waxed paper. Melt remaining butter. Cut half of the bread slices crosswise into 2 fingers and the rest diagonally into 2 triangles. Brush triangles generously on one side with melted butter and use to line base of skillet, overlapping in a flower pattern -- points meeting in center -- butter side down. Line sides of pan with bread fingers also brushed with butter. Fill in any gaps with small bread pieces.
Spread apple pure'e in mold and set any leftover bread on top, brushing it with remaining butter. Trim bread at edge of skillet level with top of apple pure'e. Bake pudding 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Reduce heat to 350 degrees for 25 to 35 minutes. Let pudding stand 10 to 15 minutes, then loosen sides with a knife and unmold onto a platter. Spoon a little fruit sauce around the edge and serve the rest separately. If serving charlotte cold, chill it at least 4 hours before unmolding. DRIED APRICOT SAUCE (Makes 2 cups to serve 8)
Choose deep golden apricots with plenty of flavor.
8 ounces dried apricots
Pared rind and juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons sugar, more to taste
1 tablespoon kirsch (optional)
Soak apricots overnight in water to cover. Alternatively cover with boiling water and leave to soak 1 hour.
Put apricots and water in a pan with lemon rind and juice. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until apricots are very tender, 25 to 35 minutes; add more water if they look dry.
Pure'e apricots, lemon rind and liquid in a food processor or blender. Stir in sugar and water if needed to make a sauce the consistency of heavy cream. Add kirsch if desired and more sugar to taste. Sauce can be kept up to 3 days in refrigerator. Serve hot or chilled.