Smothered cabbage and sausages: a cheap and delicious recipe from Rome

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Delicious and simple: meltingly soft, smothered cabbage under a fontanini sausage. Photograph: Rachel Roddy for the Guardian

The most disappointing thing about the renovations in our local bar is the bar itself, which is smaller, straighter and no longer has a “lip”. The old bar, which was shaped like a sickle and could accommodate any number from two to 22, had a lip on the outside about halfway up which served three purposes: to support the glass cabinet above, to collect crumbs, and provide a ledge for small customers. Like every other child in Testaccio, as soon as my son was able to stand, he balanced on the lip so he too could lean against the bar for breakfast. He noticed the lack of lip immediately and did the obvious thing: he kicked the bar. On our way out, I kicked the table, though not deliberately – I was distracted by the fact they no longer have two doors, meaning a bar that used to flow now has a constant bottleneck. Missing lip and facelift apart, when Maurizio is behind the coffee machine, the cappuccino is still good, its milk in thick folds, the espresso fine, and their maritozzi (Rome’s answer to a sticky, cream-filled bun) gorgeous. We will keep going, but I may feel like kicking things for a while yet.

I am used to coming back to changes after the long summer break, but this year it was a bit much. It is not just our local bar. Bar Moka, a true Roman market bar with coffee so strong and thick you shuddered, has also been gutted, and the canteen-like tavola calda Volpetti Più torn apart and put back together again. I know things change, but I can’t help feeling nostalgic about the places I latched on to when I first arrived in Rome, and returned to faithfully – my way of becoming part of this tight-knit community, maybe. I remember one of my first meals in the functional bustle of old Volpetti, hunter’s-style rabbit and flat green beans braised in tomato sauce. Food memories can be persistent buggers: I can recall exactly how those beans tasted. I was with my friend Alice and we had a silent why-is-this-so-good moment. Great ingredients, she said, and loads of olive oil and salt added at the right point to bring out other flavours and lend that silky, lip-smacking feel. Our lips shone. The ancient Romans called a man in love salax – in a salted state – which is the origin of the word salacious, which is taking my feelings for a plate of beans a bit far, I know, but you get the idea.

My friend and superb cook Carla always reminds me that vegetables love salt and good fats – extra virgin olive oil, pork fat, butter – that they are essential in transformation and taste. This week’s recipe for smothered cabbage – which is as good as it is economic and easy, a winner for the student cooks among you – uses all three: olive oil is my constant companion, and cabbage loves pork and butter. That said, in the original recipe – or rather, idea – Marcella Hazan only uses olive oil. Smothered – sofegao in Venetian – is a lovely concept: something cooked covered so it softens in its own moisture mingled with fats and a small amount of vinegar, which gives a nice sharp edge. I think of salting as a series of small pushes rather than one great shove. I add tiny pinches as I go, with the onion, with the raw cabbage, after the vinegar, and again at the end. Not over-salting, but just enough: obviously “enough” is personal, and with salt tied up with health, you are in charge.

It takes at least an hour. By the end, the cabbage should be incredibly soft and deeply flavoured. Be generous with the black pepper: its heat and spice are vital. Sausages are a natural partner here. Alternatively, the cabbage could be stirred through rice, mixed with boiled potatoes, or topped with a fried egg. Yesterday my friend and I had sausage, my partner Vincenzo had an egg, and my son Luca demanded both. After, we went to the bar for an espresso.

It may look like a stranger, but it is still our local bar, like hundreds of other bars through Rome, independent and democratic places, where you pay 80 cents, stand at the bar with your finger on a coin on the receipt, in the background the hiss of the machine, until a small white cup filled with an inch of dark liquid is put in front of you. You drink it back. I am not sure how long I will feel cross about the facelift. Luca has already got over it, the new leather seats are just the thing for sliding.

Smothered cabbage with sausages

Serves 4
900g white, green or savoy cabbage
A large white onion
75g pancetta or bacon
2 tbsp olive oil
60g butter
Salt and black pepper
1–3 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 large/8 small or a rope of sausage

1 Discard the tough outer leaves of the cabbage, cut into quarters, cut away the tough core and then shred each quarter.

2 Peel and thinly slice the onion and dice the pancetta. Put the olive oil, onion and pancetta in a large, deep frying pan or casserole (with a well-fitting lid) over a medium-low heat and cook, stirring, until the onion is soft and translucent and the pancetta has rendered its fat.

3 Add the cabbage and turn it a few times until it is starting to wilt, then add the butter and stir again until it has melted.

4 Add salt, pepper and the vinegar (if you are only adding 1 or 2 tablespoons, add water to make the liquid up to 3 tablespoons), stir again then cover the pan tightly and reduce the heat to very low. Cook for a hour or more, lifting the lid and stirring every now and then, adding a little more water if the pan looks dry, until the cabbage is very tender.

5 Check the seasoning and serve with grilled or oven-baked sausages on top, pouring any juices over the cabbage.

  • Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome, the author of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome (Saltyard) and winner of the 2015 André Simon food book award.