Simple cuisines are often the most exciting, such as cucina povera , the Italian poor man’s cuisine where something spectacular is cooked with leftovers and ingredients at hand. Every cuisine has its own cooking-with-almost-nothing dishes. For the French, that’s chou farci: a must-try stuffed cabbage showstopper.
What is chou farci?
Chou farci literally means ‘stuffed cabbage’ in French. Although all the ingredients are as modest as can be, the overall picture is an impressive dish. Perfect for parties too, because the “oohs”, “wows” and “ahhs” are inevitable when you put chou farci on the table.
You could call it a French cabbage pie, since you use the cabbage leaves as a kind of puff pastry with which you line a ring shape. To make the cabbage leaves supple, they are first blanched. Then fill the leaves and cover the top with more cabbage leaves, leaving a beautiful green ‘pie’.
But you also come across chou farci in the form of cabbage rolls. Those are a little easier to make.
Meat or vegetarian
Caulvet (also known as crepine or vetnet) is traditionally used to hold the cabbage together: the casing used for sausages. If you don’t have that, you can also use fassumier , a coarsely woven net. A piece of cheesecloth is a good alternative or a clean tea towel (washed without detergent because you can taste it), that also works fine.
The cabbage is usually filled with a combination of meat (pork belly fat, minced pork and bacon), farm vegetables such as carrot, the rest of the cabbage and onion, fresh herbs and rice. But you can easily replace the meat with lentils, spelt, mushrooms or, for example, chestnuts for a vegetarian version. As delicious as!
Just like Julia Child
If we cook French, we like to use Julia Child’s cookbooks . Her recipe for chou farci consists of three steps: assembling the cabbage, baking it (because you can also poach it, of course) and making a tomato sauce (so many variants!).
The first step is to make the filling. You do this by cooking the rice and in the case of Julia Child you mix it with the meat of a sausage and leftover turkey. Add some chopped onions, egg, salt and spices. After that it is important to blanch the cabbage. Then the bottom of a semicircular mixing bowl is covered with a layer of cabbage – a layer of filling – a layer of cabbage and so on, ending with cabbage leaves.
To make the chou farci nice and juicy, add hot chicken stock to the mixing bowl. Cover the whole thing with aluminum foil and bake very gently for two hours. Step two is now done.
The third step is actually optional. Julia Child serves her cabbage pie with a tomato sauce with garlic and star anise that balances the dish a little more thanks to the acids and sugars of the tomatoes. But you might as well leave it out. What is really a must after so much work is to pour yourself a glass of wine – preferably from Provence where this cabbage pie has its roots.
Lou fassum, the ultimate chou farci
Mr Wateetons and René Zanderink love edible packages so much that they wrote an entire book about them . And yes, chou farci included! They only discuss another variant, namely the lou fassum, according to online food magazine Saveur, this is the ‘ultimate stuffed cabbage’ . We are curious…
As it turns out, the lou fassum is simply a regional variant originating from the town of Grasse, located in Provence in southern France. Fun fact: Grasse has been the center of the perfume industry for centuries and therefore plays a major role in Süskind’s book ‘Parfum’. In which the main character eats something completely different than stuffed cabbage. Well, the recipe for lou fassum comes from these parts.
Not entirely coincidental, because Grasse used to be a city-state, surrounded by the Duchy of Savoy. And yes, this is where the Savoy probably originated. Herbes de Provence, or Provencal herbs, also come from this region. This is a mixture of thyme, marjoram, rosemary and savory, often supplemented with basil, sage and – the pride of the region – lavender flowers. All these ingredients come together in this recipe.
Mr Wateetons and René Zanderink write that translating the name lou fassum is virtually impossible, since this term comes from Occitan, a collection of regional languages that have largely disappeared from the south of France and neighboring areas in Spain and Italy. It is also known as the ‘forgotten stuffed savoy cabbage’. In any case, it is a chou farci , and the French still love it. And now we too!