Rooting for the new year: Braised pork and cabbage

by Terry B on December 31, 2008

Cooked separately, paprika-seasoned pork and red cabbage with caraway seeds come together beautifully as Braised Pork and Cabbage. Recipes below.

As I said when I wrote about simple Christmas gifts last week, my maternal grandmother grew up on a farm. Even after she moved to the big city of St. Louis as a young woman, many of her ideas, traditions and even superstitions remained firmly rooted in that rural life. For New Year’s Eve dinner, she always insisted on eating pork. Her reasoning? Pigs root forward when searching for food; chickens scratch backward. In the new year, you want to move ahead. So for this New Year’s Eve post, I’m delighted to share this heavenly pork dish Marion made using humble ingredients. I think my grandmother would have loved it.

Most dishes I write about here begin planned as a post. Some ingredient or technique will pop up on my radar screen and I’ll think about it for a while. Eventually, it turns into a full-blown recipe idea, and I go into the kitchen and start cooking, the beginnings of the post I’ll write about it already forming in the back of my mind. Or Marion will go through much the same process, specifically planning a dish for posting here.

Not this one. I called Marion at the office around five with the typical weeknight “what should we do for dinner” question. She said we had a red cabbage at home she wouldn’t mind doing something with if I could pick up some pork on the way home. That was it.

Once we were both home, she went into the kitchen and went to work. Before long, delicious smells were wafting my way. And not much longer after that came the question, “Do you maybe want to set up the camera?” That question is generally a sure sign that something wonderful is coming together. It certainly was that night. Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s Marion’s recipe:

Braised Pork and Cabbage
Serves 4

For the cabbage:

1 head red cabbage, sliced and chopped
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
2 tablespoons olive oil

For the pork:

1 pound boneless pork cut into small cubes (about 3/4 inch in size)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon paprika
1 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons dried whole leaf sage, crumbled
salt
a grinding of black pepper

For much of the cooking time, you will be working with two skillets side by side. Because the cabbage demands most of the attention during this process, I recommend setting that pan on your dominant side from the get go.

Start the cabbage first. In one of the skillets, toast the caraway seeds over moderate heat for a minute or two. Pour them in the dry skillet and stir and flip them with a spatula.  When the toasty caraway scent wafts up, they will be ready. Pour them into a little cup and set them aside for now.

Next, in the same pan, heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then add the chopped onion. Sauté it gently, stirring and being mindful not to allow the onion to burn, until it is caramelized to your liking, probably about 30 to 35 minutes [see Kitchen Notes].

Start the pork. About 15 minutes into the caramelizing, heat the other 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the other skillet over a medium-high flame. When it is hot, add the pork and brown it on all sides. Remove it from the pan and reserve in a small bowl.

Take about a quarter of the cooking onions from the first skillet and add them to the meat skillet. Add a dash more olive oil and the paprika. Stir this mixture over low heat for about 1-1/2 minutes. Then return the pork to the pan and stir to coat it with the paprika and onion.

Next, still working with the meat skillet, add the red wine and stir. Add the tomato paste, a solid grating of black pepper, and the sage, then stir again. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat to a low simmer, and cover. Don’t add salt yet—wait until the meat is cooked, to ensure that you don’t oversalt. Let it simmer gently. You will be taking the cover off from time to time.

Meanwhile, in the first skillet, keep attending to the onions until they are nicely caramelized. [That should take about another 10 minutes.]  When they are pleasingly ready, add the caraway seeds to the onions and stir to distribute it. Then add the cabbage to the skillet all at once. Stir it all together, and keep stirring it as it wilts in the pan. During this time, as the cabbage cooks, take some cooking liquid from the other pan occasionally, a couple of tablespoons at a time, and stir it into the cabbage, meanwhile continuing to sauté the cabbage gently. The goal is to add a sparse amount of liquid—enough to impart flavor to the cabbage and promote the cooking process, but not so much that it is puddling with liquid. In 8 to 10 minutes, you will end up with cabbage that is moist but not mushy, a beautiful deep red-purple, fragrant with caraway and caramelized onion. Ideally, the pork should be ready at about the same time the cabbage is cooked. Now, when both halves of dinner are cooked, is the time to salt.

This looks beautiful when plated, with the pork nestling on a bed of the cabbage.

Kitchen Notes

What a drip. If it bothers you to have drips all over your stovetop, don’t make this dish. It is a top-notch, Grade-A generator of big blobby stovetop drips. But that’s why they created Bon Ami, right?

Caramelizing onions. The timing above will produce golden brown onions. If you prefer a mahogany brown color to your caramelized onions, plan on at least another 10 minutes of attentive stirring.

In the dark. Use the best paprika you can find—that means Hungarian. Buy it in small quantities because it fades in flavor quickly, and store it in an airtight container, away from sunlight.

Sage thoughts. We don’t often use sage these days at our house, and I am not sure why. Making this dish reminded me of one of my earliest forays into cooking, back in college—I think it was baked chicken parts with dried sage. I’m sure the sage was some ghastly pale grocery store brand, and the oven was a tiny, wizened college rental apartment monstrosity that hadn’t been cleaned since the Truman Administration, and I had no idea whatsoever how long to subject the chicken to the oven anyway. But I remember that dish as a triumph: Look! Heat plus raw meat equals dinner! I did this! I was as proud of myself as if I’d invented roasting. [And by the way, discovering how to make fire is all well and good, but what I want to know is who figured out that you could use that scary stuff to fix dinner. Whoever that ancient Homo prometheus was, I salute her.]

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Foodista January 1, 2009 at 3:59 am

This looks perfect to start the new year! Wishing you and all your loved ones a Happy and Healthy 2009! Cheers!

Laura January 2, 2009 at 4:50 pm

There is nothing I like better than pork and cabbage. What a fantastic looking meal!

altadenahiker January 2, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Thank god I haven’t become superstitous, knock on wood. Hope you had a lovely celebration — this looks warm and cozy.

Mike January 2, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Its funny, I only just heard the chicken/backwards pork/forwards thing for the first time moments before I read this post. The pork sounds wonderfully simple to put together and it looks beautiful (and sounds delicious). Happy New Year!

Dana January 3, 2009 at 1:34 am

Pork, cabbage and caraway are such a great flavor combo! I actually just posted a pasta with these same flavors!

Terry B January 3, 2009 at 4:29 am

Thanks, Foodista!

Laura—I have always been a fan of pork, and cabbage has been gaining ground with my palate.

altadenahiker—You are too funny, my friend.

Mike—Irony or coincidence? Happy new year back atcha!

Dana—I just checked out your cabbage and noodles dish. Looks wonderful!

diva January 6, 2009 at 5:16 pm

pork and cabbage is a great combination! mum used to make cabbage soup in a pork bone broth when i was a kid – delicious. love the use of red cabbage. it looks fantastic and i’m sure it tastes great as well. x

Allyn January 19, 2009 at 2:45 pm

This looks amazing and very comfort-foody. I’m in the Czech Republic now and cabbage is such a featured food here – often as the side to most meals as the “salad” (w/ cucumber & tomato). I’m looking forward to returning to the US to try cooking some – and this looks great. Thanks!!

Terry B January 19, 2009 at 11:52 pm

diva—Thanks! When I hear pork broth or stock, I now invariably think of some amazing soup we had at Daikokuya, in downtown Los Angeles on our big California road trip a little over a year ago.

Allyn—It is totally comfort food. Bring back lots of cabbage recipes with you—the Eastern Europeans do some wonderful things with cabbage, a vegetable that is sadly underrated and underutilized here.

[eatingclub] vancouver || js February 7, 2009 at 7:41 am

I’ve always wanted to try a cabbage and pork dish fragrant with caraway seeds. This is bookmarked: thanks!

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