While interviewing cooks in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, I am always amazed by the little nuggets of kitchen savvy that come to light when the subject of heirloom recipes comes up. Years ago farmhouse cooks had to be creative because anything wasted represented time and money out the window.
Food journalists have kept up the mistaken mantra that the Pennsylvania Dutch are little more than eaters of pigs and potatoes, when the truth is a bit healthier than that. The Pennsylvania Dutch really like their cabbage whether it comes to the table as sauerkraut or served in a range of other ingenious dishes.
We all know how nutritionists like to sermonize on the health benefits of the Brassicas, cabbage being one of the leading veggies of that clan. It so happens that the Pennsylvania Dutch already knew this and why, in my recent book As American As Shoofly Pie, I described the cultural and culinary divide between the Pennsylvania Dutch and other Americans as “the cabbage curtain.” This brings us to “shaken cabbage” or Schupfgraut as it is called in Pennsylvania Dutch dialect.
Schupf is a verb meaning “to shake,” literally to make your food hop around in a scorching hot skillet. The French word for the same thing is sauté, although most Americans do not use that word in it most literal sense. Top-of-the-line chefs know how to do it — and like wok cookery, it takes a strong arm and some pretty high BTUs to transform a good Schupf into the desired culinary effect: light browning of the ingredients on the outside, fresh tenderness and juiciness sealed in. This is a very healthful way to cook, and yes, you can do it with cabbage.
Years ago Pennsylvania Dutch cooks liked to cook shaken cabbage with butter or lard, or even goose or chicken fat — each with its own subtle flavor and paired ingredients. Today the younger cooks favor sesame oil or olive oil and this so-called “greening” of Dutch cuisine has taken things in new and exciting directions. Eaten hot as a side dish or as a one-pot meal, shaken cabbage can also be served cold or at room temperature as the perfect salad following your workout — and far more interesting than steamed broccoli.
The nice thing is that the recipe I'm sharing here is only limited by your imagination. All sorts of ingredients can be added to dress it up for more nutritional balance or simple eye appeal: sliced bell peppers, sliced apples, shredded carrots, or even diced pineapple, to name but four.
Just the same, you need to start with good quality fresh cabbage: your own organic harvest is best. Don’t be fooled into thinking that supermarket cabbage shipped in from distant places is equal in flavor to what you harvest yourself or buy from the farmer down the road. The shorter the time between garden and cook pot, the sweeter tasting the cabbage. Within a few days stored cabbage will lose about 30 percent of its natural sugars, which is one reason why old cabbage stinks up the kitchen when it is cooked.
Baker Creek offers several varieties perfect for this recipe: Glory of Enkhuizon and Late Flat Dutch are two I have often seen in the Dutch Country, mainly because these varieties can be adapted to so many different uses, and when squeaky fresh (rub the heads together as a freshness test — they should squeak) these cabbages can taste almost as sweet as apples.
That sweetness and much of the nutritional value will be preserved by using the cooking technique in the recipe. I have departed from a lot of the hand action to a more subtle and gentler way to tenderize the cabbage. But the cooking time is still quite short, so you can assemble the dish within 20 minutes. You can also store it for several days in the refrigerator if you want to use it for low-calorie lunches during the week.
Are you curious to learn more about the most nutrition-conscious way to cook your heirloom vegetables? I suggest reading Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013). This book condenses a vast amount of technical scientific information into something much more readable and accessible. In the meantime, start your new diet with this basic recipe.
Pennsylvania Dutch "Shaken Cabbage" Recipe
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
You will need a broad, shallow sauté pan or skillet measuring about 13 to 14 inches in diameter. This will allow for the proper type of evaporation to take place and the vegetables will be more evenly cooked.
• 1/4 cup olive oil or sesame oil
• 2 large onions cut in half lengthwise, then sliced paper thin
• 1/2 cup diced celery
• 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
• 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
• 8 cups finely shredded cabbage (cut into thin strips like sauerkraut)
• 1 cup strained dill pickle juice or 1/3 to 1/2 cup herb flavored vinegar
• 1/2 cup chopped cilantro (coriander greens)
• 1-1/2 tablespoons tiny capers
• 1 cup precooked edamame
• Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat the oil in the sauté pan. Once it is hot, add the onions, celery, coriander and caraway.
2. Cover and sweat over a medium-high heat for 5 minutes, and then add the cabbage and 1/2 cup of water.
3. Cover and continue sweating the vegetables for another 5 minutes, until cabbage begins to tenderize.
4. Add the pickle juice or vinegar and stir up the ingredients. Then add the cilantro and capers and the edamame (optional). Cover and heat the mixture for 5 more minutes, adjust seasonings, and serve immediately.
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.