I grew up with an American mother so there are gaps in my Irishness. I’ve never been to Mass, I never had summer holidays in Wexford and until I went to Ballymaloe I had never eaten bacon and cabbage. I’m totally fine with never having seen a GAA match but I do wish I had had bacon and cabbage in my life a lot sooner.
When I tell people its one of my favourite dishes they wrinkle their noses in disgust, remembering the salty meat and lifeless veg their grandmothers used to serve. But it doesn’t need to be that way! It’s not what you cook, it’s how you cook it.
Bacon and Cabbage means a lot to me. I once made it for a winter special in work. I had originally planned on making molé, inspired by the amazing stews I had in Mexico. But when I thought about ordering in those obscure ingredients when I had gorgeous McNally’s cabbage and parsley grown mere miles from my kitchen I was like hang on, who am I? Did Darina Allen teach me anything??? Mexican food is great, but so is Irish food. Let’s not forget that.
This is a modernised version of the dish. Here are some pics of the original recipes from Theodora Fitzgibbon’s Irish Traditional Food. Mine is quite different but I love what she has to say about it. “It is the duty of all the Irish to uphold the national honour by preparing it as it ought to be prepared!”
I used two kinds of cabbage. First I chargrilled a head of white cabbage and got it nice and black before slicing it finely. I love the taste of burn. Then I sautéed it with shredded cavolo nero in butter and apple cider vinegar for a rich, tangy flavour.
Also, I didn’t technically use bacon. I used ham hocks instead for something a little bit meatier. I love to braise them slowly and pull the meat off the bone.
The parsley sauce is key. That little something extra that elevates it from humble elements into a full, rounded dish. Don’t skip it.
2 ham hocks
1 large Spanish onion
500ml dry cider
1 tbsp whole grain mustard
4 cloves garlic, left whole but smashed
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp olive oil, for frying
1/2 head white cabbage
500g cavolo nero, stripped off the stalks and roughly chopped
Apple Cider Vinegar to taste
Butter for frying
Parsley Sauce :
ham stock – strained from cooking
400ml full fat milk
50g parsley, finely chopped
Mashed potatoes to serve ( I won’t provide a recipe here)
Start with the meat. Rub the salt all over the ham. Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed Dutch oven and quickly fry off the hocks. You want to seal the meat and brown the outside, not cook it all the way through. Add the other ingredients and enough water so that the meat is submerged by 1 inch. Cook over a medium – low heat for 3 hours. Don’t let the liquid come to the boil or it will toughen the meat. Low, slow bubbles are what you want.
When the meat is tender and falls apart easily when poked with a fork remove the hocks from the cooking liquid and set aside. Once cool, shred the meat. Strain the cooking liquid. Pour some over the ham to keep it juicy. The rest is for the parsley sauce.
Make a roux. Melt the butter in a medium sized sauce pan, then add the flour stir to form a paste. Cook, stirring constantly for a few minutes. Slowly add the reserved ham stock, followed by the milk, whisking all the time to remove lumps. The ham stock can be very salty – taste it, and replace some with water if you need to. Wait until right before serving to add the chopped parsley so it doesn’t lose its bright green colour.
Cabbage time. Brush the wedges of white cabbage with olive oil. If you have a grill you can place the wedges directly onto it and leave to blacken. You can also cook them in a frying pan over a high heat. You can skip this step if you want but I think it’s worth it. Finely slice the blackened white cabbage, then fry in butter with the cavolo nero. Season with apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper.
To serve, put a bed of mashed potatoes in a big bowl, top with cabbage and plenty of its buttery cooking juices, ham, parsley sauce and garnish with more parsley.