Savoy Cabbage and Potato is one of the latest dishes created at Reale. It joined the menu when reopened after the winter break last year, and I presented it in March at Identità Golose. It is the dish that perhaps best reflects who I am at the moment. I didn’t quite know where to put it, so for now it’s an antipasto. But it’s really a main course, 100% vegetarian, but in terms of structure and flavor could easily replace meat or fish.
Savoy cabbage is an ingredient I’ve always enjoyed. In Abruzzo, during the winter, it is eaten as a soup with potatoes, and there’s a traditional dish from our district with a pasta made with water and flour that we call “cazzarielli”, with a base of beans and Savoy cabbage. I’ve always liked the taste. But the idea for this specific dish came to me last October. For a staff dinner we had prepared a cabbage and bean soup, and I remember that it was just then that Massimo Bottura called to invite me to cook at the Refettorio Ambrosiano with Matt Orlando from Amass and Alex Atala from D.O.M. I knew the philosophy of the Refettorio well. “The only thing”, Massimo told me, “if you could bring leftovers from your restaurant, since you’ll be arriving late”. So I thought of the external cabbage leaves, the harder, tougher ones that one usually discards. And from there was born the soup for the Refettorio that I called Pork Rinds, Ham Bone and Savoy Cabbage (similar to a ham broth soup with chick peas that I’d made in the early days of Casadonna).
I had the outer cabbage leaves, but I wanted to make a dish that also had a a gastronomic significance, so I tried steaming them at very high temperatures in order to soften the cellulose. And in doing so, I realized that cabbage leaves have an extraordinary structure, and that the extremely hard central ‘rib’ becomes creamy in the mouth. I completed the dish for the Refettorio, but in the meantime I’d come up with other ideas, and when I returned from Milan I began tackling Savoy cabbage with the same approach I’d used for the artichoke and the eggplant: I wanted it to become the sole ingredient of the dish.
We cut it into wedges, we made cabbage leaves stuffed with cabbage, all of them attempts that we knew were wrong before even tasting them, yet they gave us new ideas. At a certain point we even tried steaming the entire cabbage. We cooked, we sampled, and we understood that with a very long cooking time we could obtain a structure that remained crisp while also preserving the full flavor, one that deserved to be eaten. But it was like a one-note chord; it tasted like cabbage, and that was it. So we thought about smoking it and set up a wood-fired grill. Meanwhile I started thinking about ripening. I had already experimented with mushrooms in my Spiced Mushroom Infusion, which I ripened after cooking, vacuum packing them with tarragon, rosemary, thyme, garlic, sugar and salt: after a few days they acquired some truly interesting gustatory nuances.
After roasting it we seasoned the cabbage with salt, wine and vinegar, wrapped it in foil and let it ripen for a few days. Then we steamed it and sliced it as if it were a roast. It was good, but it needed a sauce. So we took the outer leaves, employing the concept of my “almond base” (i.e. a single unadulterated ingredient, crushed – in this case after stewing – and then blended), and we created a sauce. But we weren’t there yet: it was lacking elegance. We tried adding spices but it didn’t work, we needed more freshness and fragrance on the palate.
At this point we thought about an alcohol base, and after numerous trials we decided on a distillation of star anise. Alcohol means freshness, and with the slightest hint of anise we arrived at the “invisible ingredient” – when it’s there you perceive the elegance, but without recognizing the source as anise. When it’s not there, you sense its absence. To seal the deal, we needed something that would bring the vegetable flavors together. So, without overthinking but instead relying on the past, we tried it with potatoes. We emulsified the potato with oil, just barely, to obtain a light and silky consistency, a non-invasive structure that wouldn’t intrude on that of the cabbage, but that provides a bit of moisture and sweetness to the mouthfeel. Because – and this may seem strange – even after maturation, steamed cabbage and distilled anise maintain an unbelievable potency that is perfectly counterbalanced by the potato component. We finished it with a rosemary extract because, as in the case of my Artichoke and Rosemary, it serves as a flavor enhancer. Sometimes the vegetal essences extracted from needles, which are very resinous, in addition to the intense grassy notes are also able to bring out the flavor of the ingredient they accompany.
We put it on the menu, called it Savoy Cabbage and Potato, but it still took us a couple of weeks to perfect it. We started with a maturation of just 4 days, but after a while we realized it was more like 25. When you cook Savoy cabbage the leaves tend to separate, whereas when you mature them they become more compact. The resulting cabbage ‘filet’ holds together better because the cabbage is in traction: an elementary expedient, but we hadn’t thought of it at the beginning. Then we began wrapping the head in a double layer of aluminum foil, very tightly, cooking and maturing it like that. Marinating and traction make the leaves adhere to each other. Moreover, maturation increases acidity and complexity: by prolonging the flavor, it becomes less purely vegetal and starts to almost resemble that of roasted meat, reduced with wine; indeed, it releases a fragrance almost like garlic combined with something sweet, like carrot. Even in cross-section it doesn’t appear to be cabbage: it seems like animal fiber. If you brought it to the table without telling customers what it is, they’d think it’s a classic veal roast with a sauce – when in truth it is 100% vegetarian. One last thing: the maturation phase allows us to extend its menu life, since there are 25 days between when we cook it and when we serve it. It will be on the Reale menu until about mid-June.
Savoy Cabbage and Potato: I cede the stage to the video. But wait, allow me just a word before watching. Several years ago, Elisia Menduni undertook the difficult task of translating my cooking into film. She did so with courage, intelligence and passion, even inventing an elegant alphabet, powerful and highly original. We’ll talk more about these videos, and more generally about the challenge of translating flavor into moving images. But I wanted take this opportunity to shine the spotlight on Elisia, the true star of this video. Along with the cabbage, obviously.