The Time is Now 3: Cabbage

fig. a:  before

fig. a:  before

Once again, the concept here is pretty simple.

Find yourself the freshest, tastiest locally grown cabbages you can find (preferably organic, please), and throw them on the grill.  That's right:  take your cabbages and grill them.

fig. b:  after

fig. b:  after

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…

Grilled Cabbage

1 green cabbage, cut into 8 wedges

vegetable oil

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, minced

sea salt

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.

Serve immediately.

[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.


Epiphany, pt. 2: the recipes

fig. a:  Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas

fig. a:  Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas

You've read some background on Hoppin' John, now here are the recipes:

1.  John Thorne's master recipe for Hoppin' John in Serious Pig reflects the passion and erudition that went into his chapter on Rice & Beans.

John Thorne's Hoppin' John

1 cup black-eyed peas or cowpeas, soaked and prepared for cooking

1 small chunk of lean slab bacon, sliced thick OR a cracked ham or beef bone OR a chunk of salt pork, sliced and simmered in enough water for 15 minutes to reduce its saltiness

1 onion, chopped

1 cup raw rice

1 hot red pepper, fresh or dried, seeded and diced OR Tabasco sauce to taste

and all, some, or one of the following, according to your taste

1 clove of garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

minced fresh parsley

a little thyme

salt and pepper

Bring 5 cups of water to a boil.  Add the beans, with the bay leaf (if using), and let them simmer for about 45 minutes.  (If you are using a cracked pork or beef bone, you should add it now, too, and ignore all the bacon/salt pork instructions, frying up the onion in a bit of melted fat or oil and adding it when you add the rice.)  While the beans are cooking, prepare the bacon/salt pork by frying it until the pieces are crisp.  Either reserve these until the end of cooking (to lend a touch of crispness) or put them into the beans when the rice is added.  Fry the onion in the fat once the pork has been removed until it is translucent but not brown.  Either way, reserve the fat.

At the end of 45 minutes, taste the beans for doneness; your tongue should be able to mash them against the roof of the mouth.  If they are soft, but not mushy, they are done just right.  Eyeball the remaining liquid in the pot--there should be at least 2 1/2 cups.  If not, add more water.  Pour in the rice and mix in all the other seasonings, the bacon/salt pork bits (unless you're holding them for the end), and all--or as much as you want of--the cooking fat.  Stir the mixture well and bring the liquid to a simmer.  Let cook for another 20 minutes.  Then turn off the heat and let the Hoppin' John rest for 10 minutes.  Taste.  The beans should be just a little more tender, the rice perfectly cooked.  Crumble over the reserved bacon or sprinkle over the crisp salt-pork bits, if any, and serve.  

Serves 4 "very well indeed."

2.  Matt and Ted Lee's The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook features another thoughtful and reliable take on Hoppin' John, which makes great use of their tasty Rich Pork Broth (see below).

Lee Bros. Hoppin' John

1 cup dried black-eyed peas or field peas

2 tbsp olive oil

1 smoked hog jowl (or 1/4 pound slab bacon or 4 slices thick-cut bacon)

1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped

6 cups Rich Pork Broth (see below)

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1 tsp salt

14-oz can crushed Italian tomatoes

1 1/2 cups long-grain rice

Wash the peas in a strainer, place them in a medium bowl, and soak for 4 hours in water to cover.

Heat the olive oil in a 4-quart pot over medium-high heat and brown the hog jowl on both sides, about 5 minutes.  (If using bacon, omit the olive oil and simply render the fat in the pot for 5 minutes.)  Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the broth, black pepper, red pepper, and salt and bring to a boil.

Let the broth boil vigorously for 10 minutes, then add the drained peas.  Boil gently over medium-high heat, uncovered, until the peas are tender but still have some bite, about 25 minutes for black-eyed peas, 30 minutes for field peas.  Add the tomatoes and rice to the pot, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer vigorously for 20 minutes, until most of the broth has been absorbed but the rice and peas are still very moist.

Remove the pot from the heat and allow the Hoppin' John to steam, covered, until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 5 minutes.  Remove the hog jowl and pull off any meat.

Fluff the Hoppin' John with a fork.  Transfer to a serving dish, sprinkle the shredded hog jowl over top, and serve.

Serves 6 hungry people.

And here's that recipe for their pork broth:

Lee Bros. Rich Pork Broth

shoulder bones from a bone-in pork shoulder or 1 pound pork shank bones and trimmings

1 large onion, chopped

2 large celery stalks, chopped

4 bay leaves

6 cups cold water

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the bones, onion, celery, and bay leaves in a medium stockpot and cover with cold water.  Bring to a vigorous simmer over medium-high heat, then turn the heat to low and simmer gently for 1 hour.

Strain the broth into a bowl through a fine-mesh strainer.  Discard the solids.  Measure the amount of broth that's left.  Taste the broth.  If you don't plan to reduce it further, season it gently with salt and pepper.  

Pour the broth into a container with a tight-fitting lid.  If you're going to use it within 48 hours, keep it in the refrigerator.  Otherwise, place it in the freezer, where it will keep for at least 1 month.

3.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the simplest Hoppin' John recipe can be found in Ernest Matthew Mickler's White Trash Cooking.  

Cook enough black-eyed peas with hog jowls until they are tender.  Cook a cup of rice for every 2 or 3 hungry people.  Stir the rice and peas together and serve.

However, Mickler correctly notes that black-eyed peas aren't the only option.  In the words of his friend Kaye Kay, "You can make it out of crowder, field or cow peas."  

4.  Also unsurprisingly, the most intricate Hoppin' John recipe can be found in Sean Brock's Heritage:  Recipes and Stories.  As prodigiously talented as Brock is, he's got a knack for taking Southern classics and busying them up and even getting finicky with them.  This recipe for Lowcountry Hoppin' John being a case in point:   it features three distinct stages (including an usual drying-of-the-rice step) and almost 20 ingredients (!).  A luscious Red Pea Gravy is an element that forms naturally when you cook up a good batch of Hoppin' John, but Brock insists that it stands out even further, and he uses a blender (!) to achieve this end.  In my mind, the genius of this recipe has to do with its attention to ingredients, especially its insistence that Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas and Carolina Gold Rice--both of them heirloom varieties, both of them of an exceptional quality--be used.

Sean Brock's Hoppin' John (Hoppin' Sean?)


2 quarts Pork Stock or Chicken Stock

1 cup Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas, soaked in a pot of water in the refrigerator overnight

1 1/2 cups medium dice onions

1 cup medium dice peeled carrots

1 1/2 cups medium dice celery

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced 

1 fresh bay leaf

10 thyme sprigs

1/2 jalapeño, chopped

Kosher salt


4 cups water

1 teaspoon kosher salt 

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper 

1 cup Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice 

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

Red Pea Gravy

Reserved 1 cup cooked red peas

Reserved 2 cups cooking liquid from the peas

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Cider vinegar 

Sliced chives or scallions for garnish 

For the peas:

Bring the stock to a simmer in a small pot. Drain the peas and add to the stock, along with all of the remaining ingredients except the salt. Cook the peas, partially covered, over low heat until they are soft, about 1 hour. Season to taste with salt. (The peas can be cooked ahead and refrigerated in their liquid for up to 3 days; reheat, covered, over low heat before proceeding.)

Drain the peas, reserving their cooking liquid, and measure out 1 cup peas and 2 cups liquid for the gravy; return the rest of the peas and liquid to the pot and keep warm.

Meanwhile, for the rice:

About 45 minutes before the peas are cooked, preheat the oven to 300°F.

Bring the water, salt, and cayenne pepper to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, add the rice, stir once, and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the rice is al dente, about 15 minutes.

Drain the rice in a sieve and rinse under cold water. Spread the rice out on a rimmed baking sheet. Dry the rice in the oven, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Scatter the butter evenly over the rice and continue to dry it, stirring every few minutes, for about 5 minutes longer. All excess moisture should have evaporated and the grains should be dry and separate.

For the gravy:

Put the 1 cup peas, 2 cups cooking liquid, and the butter in a blender and blend on high until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add cider vinegar to taste.

(The gravy can be made up to 3 days ahead and kept in a covered container in the refrigerator; reheat, covered, over the lowest possible heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.)

To complete:

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the peas to a large serving bowl. Add the rice and carefully toss the rice and peas together. Pour the gravy over them, sprinkle with chives or scallions, and serve.

Serves 6 to 8 hungry souls.

[excerpted from Sean Brock's Heritage:  Recipes and Stories]

Hoppin' John is a complete meal, so you don't really need to serve it with too much else if you're serving it as a main.  A brightly flavoured fresh salad makes a lot of sense.  So does a batch of skillet corn bread.

fig. b:  butter & corn bread

fig. b:  butter & corn bread

What will Benjamin "B.J." Dennis's recipe for Hoppin' John at tonight's Lowcountry/Gullah Nation feast entail?  There's only one way to find out.  I can tell you that he's enormously proud of his Hoppin' John and the traditions that it embodies, and that he'll be using Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas and Carolina Gold Rice to create this definitive Lowcountry delicacy.

Lowcountry on the Lower Main

Montreal - Charleston Connection

B.J. Dennis + Foodlab

Saturday, May 16

5:00 pm - 10:00 pm

Société des arts technologiques

1201, blvd. St-Laurent

Montreal, QC


See you tonight!