The other week I said I wouldn't whine about the late arrival of spring produce at New York City farmers' markets, so I'll merely observe that what I found in my refrigerator the other day was the remains of a head of cabbage. It was still crisp and sweet, so there'd really have been nothing to complain about even if I hadn't promised to keep my mouth shut.
I used it to make an easy pasta dish that may sound wintry but in fact is pleasing at any time of year: Penne with sausage and cabbage.
More often than not, when Jackie and I eat pasta with cabbage, its broad, sturdy homemade noodles incorporating buckwheat flour and no eggs, as in this variation on northern Italian pizzoccheri. There, the balance between cabbage and buckwheat is maintained by keeping other ingredients to a minimum: Bacon and leeks are used more as a seasoning than as a center of attention.
But with regular dried durum wheat pasta (any short shape would work for this dish, not just penne), the accompaniment can be more assertive -- off-the-shelf pasta has nothing to prove.
For two portions, I sliced cored cabbage into 1/2-inch (10 or 12 mm) strips, enough to make a good double handful, rinsed it and left it in a sieve to drain. Then, while half an onion, thinly sliced, was sweating in olive oil with just one clove of garlic, sliced likewise, I extracted the meat from a couple of sweet Italian-style sausages with fennel seed (you can use any kind you like) and added it to the skillet in blobs, breaking it up into smaller blobs with a spoon as it browned. When it was brown but not entirely cooked, I deglazed with white wine, let it reduce, then added around 2/3 cup (160 ml) chicken stock (vegetable stock or water would have been fine) and just a third of a cup tomato sauce -- a squirt of tomato paste would be viable too. I also added salt, pepper and some herbs: sage would have been ideal, but I didn't have any so used slivered parsley and a few needles of rosemary, chopped. I set more of these herbs aside for later. If I'd felt like it, I could have added a sprinkle of dried hot chilies as well.
When the mixture came to the simmer, I stirred in the cabbage and cooked it over medium heat, partially covered (so the liquid would reduce and get more flavorful) until tender.
Remarkably, I'd had the foresight to bring a big pot of salted water to the boil, and a couple of minutes after the cabbage went into the sausage mixture the penne went into the water. The cabbage was tender before the pasta was done, so I left it uncovered off the heat for the few minutes it took the penne to catch up. Then I turned the heat under the skillet back to medium-high and stirred in the drained pasta. I'd saved some of the pasta water to loosen the sauce, but between the wine, the stock and the tomatoes it was fine the way it was. I checked for salt and pepper; it needed pepper and it also needed the rest of the parsley and rosemary to perk up the herb flavors. In the serving bowl, I topped it with grated pecorino cheese (heartier than parmesan).
The sausage and tomato part of this dish is entirely familiar -- omit the greens, add more tomatoes, top it with mozzarella, put it in the oven for a few minutes and you've got the kind of baked pasta that everyone adores. But the cabbage -- an everyday vegetable if ever there was one -- makes it seem surprisingly exotic. We expect broccoli di rape or Swiss chard in these dishes, not big strips of a vegetable we associate more with northern climes.
And, let we forget, we are in northern climes for at least a few more weeks. Not that I'm complaining.