Thai red curry seared cabbage

High heat -- both fire and spice -- can unlock its potential and make it proud again

Published February 20, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

Once upon a time, people loved and respected cabbage. They ate it raw for its gentle crunch, they browned it slowly with noodles for its caramelized sweetness, they salted it down as an offer to the god Zymurgy, who transformed it into the tart, mellow, endlessly complex gift we call sauerkraut. (Zymurgy loves all his children, but the ones who live in supermarket jars and hot dog carts, with their one-note sourness, he loves a little less than others.) Friends, cabbage was not, in headier days, just to be launched, all jokey-jokey, into the crowd from floats in New Orleans St. Patrick's Day parades, the stuff of stinking-up-the-house memories. It was king.

This is where my mastery of the mythology ends. I don't know what happened to ruin its reputation, but it might have something to do with the fact that it has the tendency to unleash a touch of sulfur into the air when boiled mercilessly into oblivion. It's not cabbage's fault! You have to treat your gifts with care! Like subjecting it to insanely hot pans for short periods of time.

My friend Molly of the wonderful blog Orangette turned me on to a super-quick, super-satisfying dish, ready in minutes, so long as I have a head of cabbage and an egg in the house -- you slice the cabbage fine, give it a quick, ripping sear in smoking-hot oil until it browns in spots, hit it with some hot sauce and soy sauce, toss it in the pan until it just softens up, and serve on toast with a fried egg. It's sweet, salty, peppery, crunchy and rounded out with yolk dribbling through the tender shreds of cabbage.

Playing on this basic structure, you can do tons of variations; one of my favorites, for instance, is to use the North African chili-tomato-coriander paste called harissa instead of hot sauce and serve it on pita bread, toasted with olive oil until crunchy.

Here, I've taken the method and gussied it up slightly, toning down the sear a bit and giving the dish a sauce. The cabbage's sweetness and gentle crunch make for a lovely counter to the spicy, powerfully herbal Thai-style curry, all tied together with rich coconut milk. The optional garnish of seared enoki mushrooms gives a nutty accent with a pleasing chew and boatloads of umami, though I do confess it adds upward of five whole minutes to the overall prep time.

Thai red curry seared cabbage
Serves 2-3 as a single-dish meal; more as a part of a multi-dish meal

4 scallions, cut into ½-inch lengths, white and green parts separated
4 tablespoons Thai red curry paste (I like Mae Ploy brand; it's tasty but not very hot)
12 ounces cabbage, red or green (about ½ of a smallish head)
1 13.5-ounce can coconut milk (preferably Asian brands; be sure it's not sweetened coconut "cream")
½ teaspoon sugar
6 kaffir lime leaves, cut into chiffonade as thin as possible (optional, but you'll want it)
5 sprigs Thai basil, thick stems removed (optional)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Fish sauce or salt, to taste

Optional garnish:

1 package enoki mushrooms
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt, to taste

To serve:

Steamed rice (jasmine, preferably)

  1. First cut your cabbage: If there are loose outer leaves, just peel them off and toss them. With a sharp knife, halve the head and take out the thick white core by making a V-shaped cut into the bottom of the head, removing the stem. Now, with the flat side down, cut the cabbage into ½-inch slices, give it a quarter-turn, and cut it into ½-inch dice.
  2. If making the mushrooms: Heat the oil over medium heat in a large heavy saucepan or wok, something large enough to give you room to toss all that cabbage in. Cut the bunch of mushrooms off at the bottom of the stem to free them all (and to get rid of the dirt that's probably clinging to them). Turn the heat up to high, and when the oil is just smoking, add the mushrooms, preferably in one layer. (If you really can't reasonably call what you have "one layer," do this in batches.) Now don't touch them! Let them sizzle, shrivel, and brown, which will be quick. When they are the color of light caramel, toss and flip them in the oil and let them color all over. When they are a medium brown, remove the mushrooms, drain them on several layers of paper towel, and salt them generously. They won't really crisp, but they will be pleasantly chewy with a deep flavor.
  3. Now make sure all your ingredients are cut to the appropriate sizes and ready to go; the cooking goes pretty quick. (This is a little weird, but give the curry paste a tiny taste. If it's painfully hot to you, go ahead and use less of it in the initial cooking; you can always stir in more later if you like.)
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil (or, if you've made the mushrooms, just pour off enough oil to leave 2 tablespoons in the pan) over high heat in a heavy saucepan, wok or a wide sauté pan, something big enough to let you toss all that cabbage. When the oil shimmers, add the white parts of the scallions, and roll them around a bit. When they just start to take on some color, add the curry paste and spread it out with a heat-proof spoon or spatula. Specks of it will want to jump around; don't mind them. Stir and flip the curry paste for a few seconds until it is fantastically fragrant and turning a deep brick red.
  5. Add the cabbage, and stir and toss to distribute the curry paste through it evenly. Season with a few pinches of salt or dashes of fish sauce and toss, vigorously, until the cabbage begins to wilt. Add the coconut milk, sugar and kaffir lime leaves (if using), and scrape up any browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Bring it all to a boil, and turn down to a simmer.
  6. Give it a taste! If you held back on the curry paste before, does it want more now? Maybe a little more salt or fish sauce to heighten the flavors? Is it too pungent or hot? You can help balance that somewhat by adding a little more sugar.
  7. Let simmer until the cabbage is tender but with still a slight bit of resistance, a very soft crunch, and the sauce has thickened somewhat. Stir in the basil, let it wilt to unlock its fragrance, and serve over rice, garnishing with the fried mushrooms. 

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

MORE FROM Francis Lam

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Eyewitness Cook Food