Too many people wrinkle their noses at the mention of cabbage. Some varieties, like Brussels sprouts, can be a little funky (in a good way as far as Jackie and I are concerned), but there’s a sweet delicacy to others, notably Savoy cabbage, with its beautiful crinkly leaves. This simple butter- and caraway-scented side dish came about as a surrogate for braised sauerkraut to be served with roast duck. You’d think fresh and fermented cabbage would have little in common apart from their DNA, but sauerkraut, even after cooking with aromatics, wine and stock, retains its identity. So, using the fresh vegetable turns out to be a good choice – especially when it is liberally sprinkled with caraway seeds, giving it a distinct Central European personality: just right for an old-fashioned crisp-skinned roast duck.
In this dish, do not use the tougher dark green outer leaves; at this time of year, in the dead of winter, they may have already been stripped off the Savoy cabbages you’ll find in the market. They can, of course, be eaten but will need longer cooking – and the allure of today’s recipe is that it takes almost no time to prepare. Consider using the tougher leaves for stuffed cabbage or for any longer-cooked application, even a soup. (Or yes, you can put them into the compost bin.)
If you have leftovers – or choose to make a larger batch – they can be combined with roughly mashed or crushed boiled potatoes and fried in butter as a new side dish or a meal in itself (with the addition of black pepper, and possibly topped with a fried or poached egg or two). Or they can form the cabbage element of this hearty northern Italian dish of buckwheat (or ordinary) pasta.
Cut the cabbage into wedges about 2 inches (5 cm) at their outer surface. Remove the core from each wedge (easier than on a whole or halved cabbage), then slice crosswise into 3/8-inch (1 cm) strips; break up most of the clumps the crinkly leaves may have tangled themselves into, but leave some for textural variety.
Over medium-high heat, melt the butter in a 10-inch (25-cm) skillet or sauté pan. Pile in the cabbage, sprinkle with salt and caraway seeds and use a rubber spatula, tongs or a spoon to turn the cabbage in the butter so that it is all coated and the seeds are well distributed. When the cabbage is warm, a minute or less, add the water and cover the pan.
Cook – the cabbage will be steaming, not frying in butter – for two or three minutes at most, stirring once or twice and checking for doneness after 90 seconds. It should be recognizably cooked but still slightly crisp, and little water should remain in the pan – just enough to moisten the cabbage. If it is sodden, use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove the cabbage to a serving dish, reduce the liquid in the pan to a buttery tablespoonful or so, and pour over the cabbage. If you plan to re-heat it, err on the side of undercooking.
Check for salt and serve. It can be made an hour or more in advance and reheated in a skillet or the microwave.