Sometimes I think way too hard about how to use up leftovers. The potential for waste bothers me. If we have half a head of red cabbage sitting in the crisper because Josh realized he really, really hates cabbage after a disastrous night of fish tacos, I have this deep-seated urge to use it up. And not just in any old random dish. It has to complement the rest of the meal I’m putting together. (See? Told you it’s a lot of work. Which is entirely due to my
unrealistic exacting standards.)
So the other day, when I was planning a meal around 18th-century boiled ham, I decided to use up said red cabbage and some fennel and goat cheese that was lying around. The flavors and textures seemed like appropriate complements to the meatiness of the ham. I sauteed the cabbage and some sliced onion in a little olive oil until soft, then covered it in leftover sour cream and baked it for about 20 minutes in a hot oven. Meanwhile, I sliced the fennel into thin strips and sauteed that in a mixture of olive oil and butter just until browned, following a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi’s wonderful Plenty. While the ham boiled away in a big pot of water (seriously, that is the only instruction), I caramelized the browned fennel and tossed the resulting fragrant mixture with the leftover goat cheese. Once the meat was finished, it was time to plate the food with a bit of cheddar cheese bread from our favorite bakery on the side. The result was one of the more colorful plates I’ve seen in the dinner department.
Josh was hesitant to try very much (the cabbage debacle still fresh on his palate), but I dug in. And after a minute the flavors and textures all seemed to meld together and call up an entirely unexpected food memory: that of robust, satisfying meals eaten one fleeting spring week in Budapest and Prague. Somehow, without really meaning to, I’d channeled all those leftovers and one 18th-century dish into a hearty eastern European dinner.
When I was in college, I spent the spring break of my senior year in Budapest and Prague with the guy I was dating at the time. He was studying abroad in Hungary, and it was the first time I’d ever been east of France. I remember the food vividly: soft cheeses soaked in olive oil and garlic, apple tarts, a somewhat successful homemade goulash, and giant mugs of dark beer. We visited a medieval-themed restaurant in Prague, where we ate fried pork cracklings and hearty bread. (There was other food at that meal, too, but only the pork cracklings stand out. Understandable, right?) The food was so different from the less flavorful western dishes I was used to that it still glows in my mind as a turning point in my dining history. But I hadn’t revisited those flavors since that spring.
The night of the accidental eastern European meal, though, I rediscovered those tastes. Sweetly sour cabbage, salted with bits of bacon; butter-browned fennel, faintly tinged with anise and tangy goat cheese; salty, toothsome ham. Like discovering a new ethnic cuisine, it was a window into a different kind of food world, and all thanks to the happy accident of trying too hard to use up leftovers. I only wish Josh didn’t hate red cabbage.
(slightly adapted from American Cookery by Amelia Simmons)
2 lbs of ham
mustard, for serving
Fill a large pot with water and set over high heat. When the water boils, carefully set the ham in the pot and let cook, uncovered, for about half an hour. When cooked, remove the ham from the pot and let cool slightly on a cutting board. Slice off the rind and reserve for another purpose. Slice the ham thinly and serve with mustard (and eastern European sides, if you wish).