What’s for dinner?

What do you cook on those nights when you really don’t feel like cooking?  For me, nine times out of ten it’s pasta.  Generally baked with something, though my old friend, pasta bolognese, the first dish I ever cooked by myself, also gets a fair bit of airtime. But more often it’s tuna casserole – a concoction of pasta, bechamel sauce, vegetables, and, usually, tuna.  (Sometimes the vegetables manage to outnumber everything else so much that there’s no room for the tuna, and it goes back into the cupboard, waiting for another opportunity).  If I have people coming around, I’ll grab some instant pasta sheets from the refrigerator section, and layer my vegetables and bechamel with that and a sauce made from garlic and a tin or two of tomatoes, with a few herbs thrown in.  It’s the same meal, but when you call it lasagne and serve it with bread and a salad it becomes glamorous enough for guests…

The trouble is, of course, that I did this on Monday night, and there’s a limit to how many pasta bakes one can eat in a single week.  Especially as we’re still eating our way through the lasagne leftovers.  So tonight, I’m returning to that other old faithful – sausages.  In summer, it’s sausages with bread and sautéed onions and capsicums (with fruit salad for dessert, because I feel guilty about the lack of vegetable content).  In autumn, the sausages often get thrown into a casserole with onions, celery, and grapes, and get served with a baked sweet potato.  In winter, they might become part of my Cheat’s Cassoulet, casseroled with beans, tomatoes, carrots, celery and onions, and baked for hours with breadcrumbs on top (and you can blame Diana Henry’s Cook Simple for those last two combinations).

But today is a grey, cold day, and I have red cabbage in the fridge and jerusalem artichokes and potatoes in the pantry and organic veal, pumpkin and apricot sausages from the farmer’s market.  Just contemplating these ingredients makes me feel very Eastern European, which means it’s time to relive a dish from my childhood… though not one I actually ever liked as a child.

My Oma was born in Vienna, but her savoury cooking, as far as I can remember it, was fairly English / Australian.  The main things I remember her cooking for dinner when I lived with her in high school are baked potatoes with coleslaw, roast beef with roasted vegetables, and vol-au-vents filled with tuna or chicken in a mornay sauce.  This is ridiculous, now I think of it, because Oma loved cooking as much as I do, and I’m sure our meals were quite varied, but Oma, like me, was a dessert and cake specialist, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the things I most vividly remember her cooking were sweets: Linzer torte, gingerbread, pikelets and macaroons for everyday; bread for communion at church; sponges and Women’s Weekly novelty cakes for children’s birthdays and walnut cake for adult ones; mince pies and Christmas pudding at Christmas; all sorts of desserts for Easter, but particularly a wonderful chilled apricot soufflé she made one year when I was quite little and decorated with Easter eggs.

I seem to have digressed quite wildly there, but to return to my point, the one really Eastern European meal I remember Oma cooking when I was a child and we went to visit her was frankfurters with red cabbage and potatoes. The potatoes were usually mashed, and were also the only part of the meal I liked eating.  As I grew older, I learned to like the frankfurters as well, but I never could cope with the red cabbage.  It was sweet and strongly-flavoured and very purple, and not something I liked at all.  Once I moved out on my own, I didn’t eat red cabbage for more than fifteen years.

Then, a couple of years ago, we started getting a vegetable box delivered every week.  It was a random, whatever-is-in-season sort of box, and when we hit winter, there it was at the bottom of the box – a red cabbage. I’d promised myself that I would at least give anything that turned up in the veggie box a try, and red cabbage struck me as a very Eastern European sort of vegetable, so I hunted out a German cookbook I’d been given by a friend to see what the Germans do with red cabbage.  Apparently, they cook it very slowly with apples, onions, cranberry jelly, and a little vinegar, so I decided to give this a go.

It was quite astonishing, actually.  For one thing, about half an hour after the cabbage started braising, the house suddenly smelled like visiting Oma’s as a child.  For another, when I tasted the cabbage, not only did I like it (quite a lot, in fact!) but I could almost taste the frankfurters and the potatoes which belonged with it.  I’ve never had such a vivid association of tastes before – it was as though they were there somewhere in the cabbage.  Perhaps this is what happens with foods that really complement each other?

There’s no way of knowing, of course, but I think I may have actually hit on the very same recipe that Oma used to use.  It’s certainly possible – the cookbook I have was originally published in Germany and has been around for decades.  I’m not sure if Oma had the recipe itself, or whether that is just the way you cook red cabbage in German-speaking countries – the ingredients, proportions, and cooking times remaining unchanged across decades in the same way they do for bechamel sauce…

Andrew doesn’t eat frankfurters, and isn’t too fond of potatoes either, so tonight’s meal won’t be quite the one I remember.  I’ll be grilling sausages rather than boiling frankfurters, for one thing, and the potatoes will be mashed with equal portions of Jerusalem artichokes.

But I’m pretty sure the red cabbage will be the same.

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