Spring Solstice–time to say good-bye to winter and welcome to spring! It’s the time of the “hungry gap” when the supply of last year’s harvest is running low, and this year’s newly planted seeds are just poking through the soil. We’re down to a few carrots and leeks, an odd beet or two, a winter squash, some potatoes, a green cabbage, and one lonely Napa cabbage. These stalwart vegetables amaze me in their ability to come through the winter underground, in the root cellar, or in a refrigerator bin and still cheerfully offer themselves for our sustenance.
My friend Wendy Johnson tells a wonderful story about the last cabbage of winter in her book, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate. It was her first year as head gardener–or ” Head of the Cabbages”–at Tassajara Zen Center in the early 1970’s. She planted the fall garden with scores of mysterious Asian vegetable seeds, which led to a winter diet of cabbages in its many incarnations: Napa cabbage, bok choy, mizuna, mibuna, han tsai tai, Osaka purple mustard, komatsuna, and a “long green swell…of Chinese cabbage.” Wendy and the eighty other practitioners at the monastery ate cabbage braised, baked, boiled, broiled, stir-fried, seared, sautéed, and raw in salads…”one of the longest forced cabbage feeds on record,” she recalled. Winter stretched into spring…Wendy says that her collaboration with the head cook and “the endless fields of sincere garden cabbages showed me what it is to be resolute and respectful of all ingredients.”
Wendy’s reverence for cabbage lasted through that winter and spring until the last cabbage was harvested in May. At that point, one of the Tassajara monks suggested holding a ceremony to honor the cabbage. While the gathering practitioners chanted and bowed “the last Chinese cabbage reclined ceremoniously on its right side, its green wrapper leaves tucked demurely beneath its ample carcass…expelling a world weary sigh.” It was a fitting farewell.
My first winter garden in North Carolina was also planted with indecipherable seed packages from Japan (a gift from a traveling friend) that filled the garden beds with all manner of heading and non-heading members of the brassica family. The plants turned out to be extremely cold hearty, thriving under row covers and low, plastic-covered tunnels all winter long. Cabbages and chicories have been the backbone of my fall and winter garden ever since.
Now, I want to honor my last cabbages not with chanting and incense but with some delicious recipes to show how much I love them. I will shower them with praise and handfuls of the first greens of spring—chives, ramps, watercress, and sorrel.
Minoru’s Okonomi-yaki Pancakes
Okonomi-yaki are savory Japanese pancakes made with vegetables and other choice ingredients incorporated into the batter. The name translates as “as-you-like-it”, so that is where the choice comes in. My first choice for the main ingredient is green cabbage, which is also most common in Japan. There, special pancake restaurants bring the batter and an assortment of fillings including bacon, shrimp, squid, and kimchi, as well as shredded vegetables to your table and allow you to cook your own pancake “as you like it” on a hot griddle.
Our friend Minoru made okonomi-yaki for us on a visit to his home in Japan. We sat on the floor around the dining table, and he cooked the pancakes on a large electric frying pan in the middle of the table. The pancakes were filled with green cabbage, green onions, and carrot, and topped with thick slices of pork belly. Minoru shared his secret for making the most airy, delicious pancakes—he separates the eggs and beats the egg whites to frothy peaks before folding them into the batter.
Ingredients for roughly 6 large pancakes: 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup water, 1/4 tsp salt, 4 large eggs (separated) Note: I usually substitute 1 1/3 cups sourdough starter for the flour and water—works great!
Filling: 5 cups finely sliced or grated green cabbage, 2/3 cup grated carrot or sweet potato, 4 or 5 thinly sliced scallions, 1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs (chives, cilantro, parsley. watercress…more for sprinkling on top)
Bacon, proscuitto, ham, shrimp, etc. are optional additions.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, water, salt, and egg yolks to make a thin batter. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites to standing peaks—they should be stiff but still shiny and moist-looking.
Heat a large griddle or frying pan over medium-high heat (electric griddle is heated to 400 degrees). Stir the shredded vegetables and herbs into the batter and mix well. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the batter.
When the pan is hot, brush lightly with oil and ladle one or more pancakes onto the surface. Place a slice of bacon on top of each pancake, if using. After about 3 minutes, flip the pancake. Cook 4 to 5 minutes, then flip again until the bacon and pancakes are cooked.
Japanese like to eat their okonomi-yaki with mayonnaise and soy sauce. I think they are great with turmeric pesto, and Drew likes them with peanut sauce. Other delicious toppings include bonito flakes (or try hot-smoked salmon), pickled ginger, and chopped fresh herbs.
Spicy Peanut Sauce
Ingredients: 2 Tbs peanut butter, 1 1/2 Tbs toasted sesame seeds, 2 garlic cloves, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 1 Tbs tomato paste, 1 or 2 tsp chile sauce, 2 Tbs fish sauce, 1 tsp sugar, 1/3 cup water, juice of 1 lime
Use a blender to puree all the ingredients.
Japanese Salt-rubbed Cabbage Salad
Very simple—a crunchy, flavorful addition to an okonomi-yaki meal.
Ingredients: 1/2 small napa cabbage (about 1 lb), 1 1/2 tsp sea salt, 3 or 4 scallions or a handful Asian garlic chives, Zest and juice from 1 Meyer lemon (or a regular lemon or lime and 1/2 tsp sugar), pinch red chile flakes or a thinly sliced jalapeno, a large handful trimmed watercress
Cut the napa cabbage in half vertically , then into 2 quarters. Remove any tough portion of the core. Slice the cabbage crosswise into thin slivers. Toss the sliced cabbage with the salt and massage gently. Put the salted cabbage in a colander with a small plate on top for a weight. Place in the sink or in the fridge over a bowl and let sit for 15 to 20 minutes. Squeeze the cabbage gently to remove excess liquid and transfer to a bowl
Add the finely sliced scallions or chives, lemon juice and zest, chile, and chopped watercress. Toss to combine.
My Sister’s Salad
My sister Ellen makes this salad with daikon and carrot. I made it in honor of the last over-wintered carrots and napa cabbage, with the first garlic chives, arugula, and mint leaves.
Ingredients: 6 cups finely sliced napa cabbage, 1 cup shredded or matchstick-cut carrot, 1/2 tsp sea salt, handful chopped chives, a handful arugula leaves, a few finely chopped fresh mint leaves, 1 Tbs toasted sesame seeds
Dressing: 1 garlic clove, pinch of sea salt, 1 Tbs fresh lime juice, 1/4 tsp sugar, 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, 1 Tbs rice vinegar, 2 tsp soy sauce, 1 Tbs toasted sesame oil
Toss the finely sliced cabbage, carrots, scallions, and mint in a large bowl with 1/2 tsp salt.Set aside while you make the dressing. Using a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic and a pinch of salt to a paste. Whisk in the lime juice, sugar and chile. Add the rice vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Whisk to combine. Adjust the seasoning and toss with the cabbage. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds before serving.