To explain why I ended up combining chestnuts (Wikipedia wants me to call them sweet chestnuts or marrons with 2 “r” or, in American, Spanish chestnuts; all in order to avoid confusing them with lesser, inedible kinds) and red cabbage, I will first introduce my childhood red cabbages. At home, red cabbage contained a few cloves, perhaps bay leaves, allspice, in fancy moments some apples, and some smoked pork of the bacony kind. I sort-of liked red cabbage but it was certainly not my ultimate favorite.
At the age of four, I learned to be careful with food away from home: The kitchen of the Weberhof on the island Juist (at the time best described as a seaside vacation kindergarten, where I was supposed to have fun while my parents went on an old-instrument museum trip), bluntly introduced me to the culinary side of homesickness (my present addiction to home-cooking may still be a late compensation for the loneliness of those four weeks).
Regarding North-German red cabbage, there was every reason for my reluctance: in the homes of friends or relatives, it tended to be too sweet (sometimes it was made with raisins), always slimy (the non-judicious use of roux — flour browned in fat — is a trademark of old fashioned everyday German home cooking), and the inevitable bit of smoked side of pork had in most cases turned into a sagging heap of blubber. Unlike in other cabbage, smoked pork is here out of place: its texture does not match the rest of the dish in any case, and after a lengthy stay in a red, bubbling environment, it looks and tastes as if retrieved from the pantry of a long-sunken ship: half disintegrated, discolored and with a hint of smoke of long-gone days. Small wonder that, when I began to cook my own food, I searched for better ways to deal with red cabbage.
While cutting the pork into small bits before cooking, and pre-sauteing these with a few chopped onions directly creates better results than the amorphous blocks of glorp from my memory, red cabbage might be the only leaf cabbage that does not clearly benefit from the addition of meat, lard, or even stock. I poked around for alternatives, and finally found a reference to chestnuts in cabbage in a small German kitchen dictionary (I think I remember it was the old dictionary from the DTV-Verlag, which includes many good — if laconic — recipes, some good entries about various ingredients, but a lot of misleading information about any kind of non-German regional cooking).
Chestnuts in red cabbage are not new. In Beethoven’s 18th preserved conversation book from the beginning of November 1822, we find exactly this combination mentioned by Beethoven’s nephew (p. 8r; in the modern VEB edition Vol. 2, p. 282). Not being Beethoven or his nephew, it took me a while of experimenting to come up with a way that was truly presentable, and finally presented, at a recent Thanksgiving party. Here is what I do:
Ingredients: 1 medium large red cabbage (usually the organic ones result in a less smelly kitchen), finely shredded; one tart apple in chunks; about 20 fresh chestnuts in their shell (or more to taste); some chopped onion; 4 or 5 cloves; some ground black pepper; salt; at least a tablespoon of butter; and altogether about half a bottle of dry white wine.
While I’m shredding the cabbage, I very slowly saute the onion in about a third of the butter in a large pan. At home I use a cast-iron casserole for this task; here in my Southampton study-hole, I had to do with a large stainless-steel pan. This worked fairly well; however, the sides get less hot, which retards the cooking process, while the bottom tends to heat up too much, making it necessary to monitor the progress closely in order to avoid burning the food.
Now I add the cabbage, the apple, all the spices, some salt, and two thirds of the wine. I stir, adjust the heat so the whole starts to simmer, and cover the pan. I stir occasionally and check the sauce level. If necessary, I add a little more wine.
The chestnuts need no oven-baking: while a suitable amount of water comes to the boil, I cut a cross in each chestnut shell and boil the chestnuts for about 8 minutes, drain them, let them cool slightly and shell them. I also peel or scrape away as much of the brown inner skin as possible, breaking the chestnuts apart where the skin goes inward, while trying to be time-efficient about this: there is no need to get rid of every last bit of it. Dark areas of chestnut need to be cut out, of course (I was lucky and found organic Italian chestnuts at my store — one of the moments where it truly ‘shared my values’ as the slogan goes — and ended up with having to discard only two chestnuts out of a whole bag, while the rest of them were large and impeccable).
The resulting strainer full of half-cooked, cleaned chestnut chunks gets rinsed and set aside (this is, incidentally, the stage where a larger batch of chestnuts would go into freezer bags for later use. I avoid canned chestnuts), while I slowly heat up the rest of the butter in a small pan. The butter foam has subsided completely before I add the chestnuts to the pan, but the butter should not have browned more than very slightly. We want to enhance the chestnut flavor, not mask it.
Stirring around on low heat, I wait until some of the butter has been absorbed and everything got hot and starts sizzling. Now I add the rest of the wine and a little salt, and adjust everything to a medium-low simmer, uncovered. The chestnuts should take about 30 minutes to cook; if the wine gets absorbed earlier, I add some more, or water; if some wine is left at the end, I boil it off until about a tablespoon of sauce is left in the pan. Now I set the chestnuts aside to cool. They will absorb most of the remaining sauce and butter.
Ideally, the cabbage needs at least two hours to cook properly. For some reasons, cabbage heated up on the next day tastes usually better, so one could prepare everything ahead of time and add the chestnuts when heating up the cabbage. Check for salt and balance: sometimes, a bit of good wine vinegar is needed to balance acidity and to enhance the flavor.
This is a great aside for any big roast at a feast dinner; it keeps for days and can easily be frozen when one’s leftover-feast-food-mood has vanished. Retrieved from the freezer, it greatly supports the solitary cooker’s Sunday cooking based on, for example, single browned bird bits.