Is there an easier dish to cook that's this ridiculously addictive? I'd say…no. And will have words with anyone who dare say otherwise. I had a craving for this simple fare one day, bought two heads of cabbage and ate nothing else for three meals straight. Yet after I demolished both heads, I found myself hankering for another plate on day three. A tad embarrassing, but
honestly, what's not to love? The cabbage is sweet and salty, juicy but still mildly crunchy, and it's even undeniably good for you. But if I am to be honest, the crux of the addiction is the hint of chili – not enough to make the dish spicy, yet leaves a tinge of fragrance on your tongue and in the air.
The secret? Not much mystery at all – a quick deep-fry of dried chili in the oil before you cook infuses the oil with just enough flavor to carry the whole dish. Yes folks, that one extra 30-second step is all it takes to make a boring head of cabbage into crave-worthy eats. And all in about five minutes. It's just a damn fine use of this normally bland ball of veg (in Chinese, juanxincai 卷心菜 translates into rolled-heart vegetable. Much better name, no?).
- half of a big head of cabbage, cut into rough squares (think 1-2 inches square)
- 2 cloves garlic
- tablespoon peanut oil (or vegetable oil, but I love the added aroma from good peanut oil)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp chicken bouillon (or dashi, or non at all if you don't have it)
- small handful of dried chili pepper (about a dozen, and preferably whole dried chilies)
1. Put your wok on medium-high heat. When warm, add in the oil. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, toss in the chilis and the garlic cloves. No need to chop up the garlic, just smash it a bit with the flat part of a knife. This step in Chinese is usually called bao – or to open up the flavors of the spices – here however, there is a little more oil used, and the point is to fry the chili and garlic in the oil to flavor the oil itself, which then works it magic on the cabbage. Stir the chili and garlic around for about 30 seconds – you'll start to smell it quickly, and the chilis will turn darker. Don't let it get too burnt, but a little dark is allll good.
2. When the oil is fragrant (and your nose will tell you when, but about 30-45 seconds), toss in the chopped cabbage, salt, sugar, and seasoning.
3. Toss the cabbage around and stir-fried the batch for about 4-5 minutes. You want to cook the cabbage through and wilt it, but you don't want to end up with soggy boiled cabbage. Cabbage stir-fried doesn't release much water, so keep stirring to make sure nothing burns! It will start to smell amazing – for something that looks so deceptively simple. Once wilted (take a bite from a thick stem piece if you aren't sure), check to make sure there's enough salt, and dump it out onto a plate. It's a good simple side dish, but seriously folks, I can eat nothing else and still feel like I had a perfectly awesome meal. Did i mention yet this all takes but five minutes?
You can also use this method to cook about any vegetable, including Chinese cabbage (i.e. napa cabbage) but to be honest, there's something great about the slight sweetness inherent in a boring old head of cabbage that goes so great with the hint o' chili.