balsamic red cabbage and radicchio

Mostly, my messy life measures up as a disappointment when I’m comparing it to pictures I see in magazines, or the countless catalogs of artfully-styled rooms and perfectly-placed table settings that get stuffed into my mailbox and pile up on my nightstand and bathroom reading rack. These vignettes of composed life extend to food photography too—all the propped up, tweezer-arranged, q-tip brushed, hairsprayed, backlit, cooled-down, color-enhanced and photoshopped dishes pop out from iPad screens and glossy pages to whet your appetite even though they are in fact some inedible and endlessly tweaked version of the recipe you’ll find below the image. You make it and well, it just doesn’t look as delightful on your work-a-day dishes, under your shadow-throwing kitchen lighting.  This reminds me of  a one-line encapsulation of Buddhist philosophy I once read: “All suffering lies in the space between expectation and reality”.  As a change of pace, I offer you this under-achieving photo of a fantastic, deliciously sweet and sour, easy to make side dish that does not even begin to tell the story of it’s four purples, (radicchio, red cabbage, red onion and balsamic), golden raisins, sugar-shellacked sunflower seeds, and white-washed feta.

What I’m trying to say is this is better than it looks. Even as it was coming together, as the gorgeous hues were losing a bit of their punch in the pan, I was thinking, I’m not going to like this. I’ll have to pull it off my Rancho La Puerta menu and come up with another side-dish. But I was wrong. It’s really good, warm or room temperature.  It has sweet. It has sour, with a mild bitter note from the radicchio that balances but does not offend.  It has crunch from the nuts but also great chew from the lightly-cooked cabbage. Even, my husband, who doesn’t like cabbage because growing up his only exposure to it was in the typical deli coleslaw you either love or hate (he hates), or as the limp, dirty-sock-melling, beige-y, roll-up for a questionable meat stuffing, even he loved this repeating “this doesn’t taste like cabbage” throughout dinner, as though it was a compliment.

I can imagine this served warm with roasted or braised meats, but just as nicely paired at room temperature with grilled anything, seared seafood, a frittata or soufflé, or as part of a vegetarian meal served with a whole grain (brown rice, quinoa, faro, millet). I love many things about cooking, but this recipe reminded me that in the kitchen, most of what comes out of the pan and the oven provides instant, joyful gratification—even, or especially when your expectations are low.

Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage and Radicchio
Serves 6

1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1 teaspoon natural cane sugar (or brown sugar)
fine grain sea salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 red onion, diced
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 pound head of red cabbage, quartered and cut into thin ribbons
1 head of radicchio, quartered and cut into thin ribbons
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
2 ounces golden raisins (or other plump, chopped dried fruit)
1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2-3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to garnish, optional

1. Toast the sunflower seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until golden brown. When roasting seeds or nuts be careful to keep an eye on them. Once they start browning they absorb heat faster and can burn quickly. Sprinkle on the sugar, and a couple pinches of salt. Stir until the sugar melts and coats the seeds (you pan will need to be hot enough). Transfer the seeds immediately to a plate so they don’t stick to the pan. Set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion for a minute or two with a couple pinches of salt. Stir in the garlic, cook 30 seconds or so until fragrant, then add the cabbage, and radicchio and a few more pinches of salt. Stir and cook for just a minute or so, or until the cabbage softens up just a touch. Then stir in the rosemary, most of the raisins, and the vinegar. The cabbage will continue to get more and more tender even after you remove it from the heat, so keep that in mind, and do your best to avoid overcooking it – where it collapses entirely.

3. Fold in half of the feta cheese, most of the sunflower seeds, then taste. Season with more salt if needed. Serve with the remaining raisins, feta, sunflower seeds sprinkled over the top. Shaved Parmesan, optional.