The problem with liking cabbage so much is that I often smell of it. Not the most charismatic way to start a column, I know, especially the first of the year – happy new year! – but it is the truth, and a significant part of my eating life. As a child, I discovered that liking cabbage carried a risk: that of being called smelly, although this didn’t stop me eating all my school lunch, then offering to finish my friend’s. Young trauma faded into twentysomething worries about my sulphurous hair, although this didn’t stop me eating the cabbage soup I prescribed myself. But then, in my early 30s, I found myself living in a building that, thanks to a trattoria serving a typically Roman and therefore cruciferous menu, smelled more strongly of cabbage (also of broccoli, chicory and spinach) than I did. It was like meeting a kindred spirit, only made of bricks and cement; I fitted right in.
I am exaggerating, of course – but only slightly. Our building is a cabbage and broccoli bong much of the time; the sulphurous scent hanging around the courtyard and communal stairwells like fruit flies around half a melon in high summer. The smell is not alone: the bread shop, the bar dispatching espressos, bins and various degrees of home cooking all compete for airspace. But the scent of cabbage prevails. And I like the pong as much as the flavour of this great, green vegetable named after a head, especially deep-green savoy, with its blasted leaves and tree-like rib that taste like chlorophyll, iron, mustard and nutty butter.
If the smell is a bother, though, there are ways and whole websites dedicated to what Jane Grigson describes as the original sin. A cup of coffee with a tablespoon of vinegar left near the pan; a slice of bread soaked with vinegar positioned near the pan is likewise said to soak up unwanted smells; a bowl of water with bicarb; or half a potato. Ingredients added to the cabbage while cooking can also help: vinegar, milk, bay leaves, potato. Maybe the Neapolitans, the original mangiafoglia (leaf eaters), know this. Or maybe it is simply that bay and potato made such good additions to a minestra di verza e riso, or virz’e rise, a soothing dish of cabbage with rice and parmesan that is somewhere between a soup and a risotto. The slow cooking of the cabbage in butter (which is my non-traditional addition) and oil reduces it almost to a cream, which, having given its scent to the room (and the cup of coffee with vinegar), is softly vegetal and savourythanks to the umami power of a parmesan rind (one of the best seasonings known to soup, as well as a soft, chewy fringe benefit for the cook).
The Neapolitan friend who taught me how to make this dish refers to it as a toccasana, a cure-all, and I agree. And while it isn’t a please-all, it is certainly a dish to win over cabbage sceptics. It’s also cheap, generous and, smells aside, one that fits in.
Rice and cabbage soup – minestra di verza e riso
1 large savoy cabbage
5 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
2 bay leaves
Salt and black pepper
30g parmesan, grated, plus 1 parmesan rind
200g rice (carnaroli or vialone nano)
Trim the base of the cabbage, pulling away any tough leaves, then cut in quarters, remove the core and slice the rest into fine ribbons.
In a heavy-based pan, warm the oil and butter, then add the cabbage, onion, garlic and bay leaves, and stir well so everything is coated in oil. Cook for a few minutes, then lower the heat, cover the pan and leave to cook gently for 45 minutes, or until the cabbage has collapsed completely.
Mash the cabbage with a fork so it breaks up, then add a litre and a half of water, a pinch of salt and the parmesan rind. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.
Add the rice and simmer, stirring often, for 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender. I order that the final consistency is soft and thick, but still soupy, so you may need to add more water. Stir in the parmesan and lots of freshly ground black pepper, then serve.