Autumn has much to offer in both the garden and the kitchen, and now as the weather closes in, warming and comforting dishes are back in season, and braised red cabbage is just perfect this time of year. Generally, I am not a huge fan of the brassica family, but there are some dishes that I do enjoy: crisp green cabbage in the form of a continental style coleslaw, rather than the mayonnaise drenched version, although that can be good too; sautéed savoy cabbage or kale, perhaps with a little bacon, on its own or added to mashed potatoes; cabbage leaves stuffed with a savoury minced meat; and, of course, that great autumnal dish of braised red cabbage.
For red cabbage, I grow Red Drumhead, a wonderful traditional variety that never seems to fail to develop good quality tightly packed hearts. They will grow to quite a size, but today I picked a small one, which, after stripping all of the tough outer leaves, left a nice heart of about 1kg. Red Drumhead has a good flavour and, unlike some varieties, it keeps its colour when cooked. With home grown red cabbages, raised according to organic principles, it is well worth picking over the leaves quite carefully to make sure that no extra protein finds its way into the dish; stripping back to the heart should deal with most creeping things.
The cabbage could be braised on its own, but is excellent when paired with onions and apples. Use either dessert or cooking apples, although the latter may require a little more sugar, especially if Bramley’s Seedling are involved. The latter, although by far the most popular culinary apple in the UK, is not entirely ideal for this dish, as one does not want all of the apple to cook down to a pulp. I used an assortment of what was available, which included one Bramley and a couple of dessert varieties.
The dish is given its distinctive sweet and sour flavour with the addition of vinegar and sugar; I tend to use a cider vinegar and a soft brown sugar, but others could be substituted. I also like to add some spices to the dish. A generic pickling spice mix is readily available and entirely suitable, but it is sometimes nice to add a few other ingredients, such as a couple of cloves and a little cinnamon. Pickling spice typically includes some dried chillies, but I added a small amount of fresh chilli instead, just to provide a hint of background warmth rather than any real heat. This could be left out if desired. I made up my own mix of spices, comprising yellow mustard seeds, coriander seeds, white peppercorns, allspice, cloves, juniper berries, bay leaf, and cinnamon.
The quantities of cabbage, apples and onions are not at all critical; adjust according to what is available, and scale the other ingredients to suit. Like so much in the kitchen, patience is well rewarded, and this dish is best after several hours of slow, gentle cooking, at which point it will be velvety soft, rich, and comforting.