The first time we had our minds blown by such a dish was in Charleston, SC, in late 2013. We'd driven down to Charleston for Christmas on a whim. And, oh, what a whim it was! We had an absolutely phenomenal time, and the food we ate was completely off the charts, but there's no question that the meal of the trip (and our Meal of the Year) was the feast we had at McCrady's.
We had a number of phenomenal dishes that night, including Calico scallops with roasted butternut squash, chervil, and green peanuts; pan-fried trout with Meyer lemon and thyme; and a fall greens salad with charred pecans, country ham, apples and turnips. But in many ways, the most memorable dish, and the one that proved to be the most inspirational dish of the night, was a smoky grilled cabbage dish that made up just one-third of a medley of brassicas that came with the trout. That smoky grilled cabbage dish is usually the first dish we mention when we describe our experience of McCrady’s; it’s also the only dish that we had that night that we’ve tried to replicate repeatedly in the years since our trip to Charleston.
Unfortunately, I don’t have McCrady’s original recipe. But I can tell you that it was grilled outside the restaurant on one of a battery of barbecues and hibachis the McCrady’s crew had set up around the premises. Like so many other top chefs, Executive Chef Sean Brock and Chef de Cuisine Jeremiah Langhorne* had become obsessed with cooking over wood fires, but the historic landmark status of McCrady’s Unity Alley location kept them from outfitting the restaurant with an indoor wood-fired grill (apparently, they're in the process of moving locations, so we'll see if that's changed when they start up again). They’d made up for it by taking full advantage of the restaurant’s surroundings, as well as its roof (!). Anyway, the dish in question was a relatively simple preparation, but that was the first time we’d ever tasted grilled cabbage, and the experience was a revelation. This cabbage was unusually sweet and wonderfully smoky, and it had absolutely perfect mouthfeel: tender and supple, with just the perfect amount of crunch still present.
The next time our waiter dropped by our table and inquired as to how our meal was progressing, we told him that everything was going swimmingly, but that the grilled cabbage dish had been the standout, and we were going to have to insist upon seconds. He gave a nervous laugh, and said something to the effect of, “Yeah, right… You guys!” But we weren’t kidding, and when he took a closer look at our dead earnest expressions, he hustled back to the kitchen with our request. The kitchen was thrilled, of course. That grilled cabbage dish was exactly the kind of backroom experiment that kitchen staff get super excited about, but that the general public typically doesn’t even notice. When they heard that their homely little cabbage dish had some serious fans out on the floor, they sent us back a heaping portion—which we promptly devoured, once again.
A few months later, when the snows and the ice had subsided in Montreal and grilling season had started up again, grilled cabbage was a top priority for me. I had a good sense of how the team at McCrady’s had made their version, but when I came across a recipe for roasted cabbage in the book Brassicas: Cooking the World's Healthiest Vegetables by Laura B. Russell, I recognized it as one that could be easily adapted to similar effect. So that’s exactly what I did. The recipe that resulted has been my go-to grilled cabbage recipe ever since. It’s a dish that never fails to receive raves from our dinner guests. People respond to it pretty much the same way Michelle and I did that fateful December in Charleston.
If the cabbage is just right and I’m feeling suitably ambitious, I’ll cut the cabbage in wedges, leaving part of the stem attached, and keep the wedges intact as I grill them—grilling just the top and bottom of each wedge if the cabbage is particularly young and tender, and all four sides, if the cabbage needs a bit more time over the fire. If the cabbage doesn’t feel like keeping its wedge form and it would rather just let itself go and spread its leaves all over the grill, I just go with it, turning the mass of leaves carefully with my tongs to try to avoid losing any of them into the coals below. There are times when I prefer the look of a perfectly intact grilled cabbage wedge on a platter or on an individual plate, but I like the taste of the warm cabbage salad version just as much.
In any case, if you’ve grilled a cabbage, now is the time to try it. The cabbages are at their very best these days, and there’s still plenty of time left in our grilling season. Avoid frisée cabbages like the Savoy cabbage when making this. Opt instead for a good-old fashioned green cabbage, preferably a local organic one, or, even better, one of those beautiful conical cabbages that are becoming more common these days (again, preferably a local and organic one)..
Without any further ado…
1 green cabbage, cut into 8 wedges
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, minced
freshly ground black pepper
Light your grill, using all-natural charcoal or charcoal briquets.
When you cut your cabbage into wedges, try to keep some of the stem attached so that the wedges remain intact when you grill them.
Drizzle the wedges with vegetable oil and place them on a baking sheet or in a platter until your fire is ready.
When your fire is medium-hot, go ahead and start grilling, making sure to blacken each wedge gently on at least the top and bottom, and possibly on all four sides.
Remove the wedges from the grill and let them cool slightly.
Prepare your dressing. Whisk the olive oil with the lemon juice, salt, and pepper, making sure to season to taste.
Pour the dressing over the grilled cabbage wedges, or grilled cabbage leaves, and toss them gently for even distribution.
[based very closely on a recipe for roasted cabbage** that appeared in Laura B. Russell's Brassicas: Cooking the World's Healthiest Vegetables (Ten Speed Press, 2014)]
Not only is this dish unbelievably delicious, but it's versatile. We've served this dish as part of all kinds of different menus. Just this summer we served it with as an accompaniment to an Italian antipasti spread to great effect, but it was particularly great with grilled pork skewers and fennel-and-chile-rubbed grilled chicken.
I've said everything I have to say about this recipe. The time is now. Start grilling!
* Langhorne is now the chef and owner of The Dabney in Washington, D.C.
** If grilling isn't your bag, and you'd prefer to roast your cabbage, by all means, be my guest. As noted above, Russell's original recipe is for roasted cabbage. Place your cabbage wedges on a baking sheet, and after drizzling a little vegetable oil on them, slide them into a 425º F oven. Total cooking time will be a little longer with this version (30-45 minutes), making sure to flip your wedges once midway through.