When I think of winter food, the first thing that always pops into my head is a traditional Bulgarian dish made of pork belly and pickled cabbage. It is a sort of a stew that takes a couple of hours to cook and for me, it is the ultimate comfort food. It’s fatty, it’s yummy, it smells divine and it’s highly addictive.
Most households back home in Bulgaria pickle their own cabbage around November yearly and my family is no different. My mom usually makes about 50 kilos in a large barrel, which is ready to eat in time for Christmas and by the end of February it’s all gone! This year, for the first time I was brave enough to try and prep some myself. “All you need is cold weather” my mom said and I’m in luck, ’cause there’s plenty of that in Scotland, where I just moved….hah! There’s my silver lining!
I remember when I first arrived in the UK, back in ’97, Mediterranean and Eastern European produce was scarce in the supermarkets. There were so many things I missed and the only place you can find anything similar to the tastes back home was in a couple of Turkish shops in North London. I started seeing things like feta cheese and Greek yoghurt in Sainsbury’s a few years later and the rest quickly followed. Pickled cabbage, however is still only found in Turkish stores, with the exception of jarred Sauerkraut, which has a similar, but slightly sweeter taste and its far too finely shredded for my liking (still does the job though, but to get the authentic taste and texture of the dish, try to go for the “real” thing)
To pickle cabbage is fairly simple. Buy whole cabbage, choosing nice tight heads. Score the thick core part to allow the pickle liquid to penetrate quicker. The tighter wound your cabbage heads, the deeper you will need to cut it. The liquor is made out of 400gr of sea salt per 10 litres of water. To prepare it, boil a litre in a pot and dissolve the salt in it. Let it cool down and add to the remaining 9 litres of cold water. Prepare your cabbage. I’ve bought two different kinds to try with.
The green I’m gonna pickle alone but the white will get a few carrots and a couple of parsnips put in the pot as well, again as a taste trial. Ones the barrels are ready, the salty water goes in, lids go on and both go to the garage. 3-4 weeks from now I should be able to cook my first meal, made with my own pickled cabbage! Fingers crossed….A word of advice: ones you settle your barrels somewhere just forget about them for a month. Last year my old granddad kept on poking the cabbage, straining the liquid and topping it up , plus God knows what else, resulting in the whole lot turning to mush and ending up in the bin…needless to say my mother wasn’t impressed so he had a 50 yards restraining order this time over and the pickle turned out beautifully.
As I’m in Bulgaria for a few more days and I really can’t leave before have this dish….will have to make it myself though, been moaning to my mother to cook me a pot for good couple of weeks but now she is having none of it! Ones people find out you CAN cook you’ve had it….
When cutting the cabbage in half, you are looking to consistant colour and firm texture throughout. Also the liquid should be clear (it’s one of the best hangover cures known to mankind, but more on that later)Chop the head up, discarding the thick core and set aside. Pieces should be about 1/4 inch or so – fine but not too fine
Cut up about a 700gr to a kilo of pork belly (ribs work well too, as long as they are fatty) and season with black pepper and a sprinkle of dried red chilli flakes. Don’t add any salt as there is more than you need already in the cabbageAdd the meat to a large pot, drizzle with a bit of chilli oil (or normal olive oil if you don’t want the dish to be too spicy). Sauté for a couple of minutes and add a splash of white wine. Cover and turn the heat down to medium, letting it stew for 5-6 minutes. Add 2 tbsp of paprika and mix well. Pile all the chopped cabbage over the meat and press down slightly, forming a sort of a “blanket”.
I’d go an extra mile here though….I like my dish finished in the oven. It gives it a much smoother taste. All you need to do is preheat the oven to 180C (gas 4), poor the pot’s contents into a large baking tin and bake for 15-20 min. Looovely. I would love to hide somewhere and eat whole lot by myself…..wouldn’t take me long either!