16 May 2012

braised cabbage & butter beans in anchovy sauce

Here's a dish (and many variations of it) that I make often.  It's one of those dishes in my repertoire that works whether it's a cold or hot day.  And yes, its got cabbage and yes, its got anchovies.  Two much maligned ingredients I think.  I can assure you that this dish is so simple to make and yet so very delicious in all it's buttery, salty, almost meaty tasting goodness.

I ate a lot of cabbage growing up.  It's pretty popular in Chinese cooking - whether in soups, stir fry or braised. Maybe it's all the different ways that cabbage can be cooked in my culture and flavoured with different sauces and spices that hasn't turned me off it the way it has with so many people I've met in NZ.  Most of my Kiwi and English friends won't touch it citing bad memories of the smell and of limp grey bland tasting cabbage from when they were young.  Whilst I only have good smell (and taste) memories of cabbage!  Yes, cabbage.  Who would've thought, eh?

Try and imagine these - cabbage stir fried with loads of garlic and ginger and flavoured simply with some light soy sauce and a few drops of sesame oil, or braised slowly on low heat with chinese mushrooms, light soy sauce, sugar, ginger, garlic and a dash of chinese cooking wine, or simply chopped into squarish chunks to make a soup with chicken, ginger, garlic and goji berries.  And a little trick - white pepper is cabbage's best friend.  Everyone has cracked black pepper at home, but invest in some ground white pepper and experiment with it, especially in Chinese cooking.  You'll love it!  So suddenly, cabbage doesn't sound so terrible now does it?

And what of anchovies?  I suppose here's another ingredient I've grown up eating so am not aversed to it.  Although the anchovies of my childhood is nothing like the Italian-style cured and packed in oil type that I often use now.  Those anchovies were also dried and salted, but never packed in oil.  They're either fried just with sambal (chilli paste) and eaten as a condiment, or into this sticky, sweet and salty snack with brown sugar, sambal and peanuts.  Sometimes they're just simply fried to a light golden crisp - all salty, crunchy and addictive.

Up to about couple years ago, I had never cooked with the Italian or Spanish style (cured and packed in oil) anchovies.  But once I started using it, I was hooked.  Since then I've used it countless of times as a flavour base in pasta sauces, casseroles, soups, risottos, etc.  One of my favourite pasta 'sauce' is an olive oil mixture that's flavoured with anchovies and sautéed garlic, chilli flakes and chopped black olives, tossed through hot pasta.  Very quick to put together on lazy weekday nights and so very satisfying.

So if you're one of those who wrinkle their noses up at the very mention of anchovies because of a bad fishy pizza experience, give it another go - this time as part of a sauce or flavour base.  When it's cooked that way, the anchovies melt completely so that you no longer see the fillets at all and the pungent fishy smell turns into this deep rich salty explosion of flavour.  I promise you it's nothing but goodness.

And if you're still not convinced and swearing that no anchovies will ever pass your lips come hell or high water, let me let you in on a secret...those lips of yours, have had anchovies more times than you'd think.  Every time you ate at your favourite Thai or Vietnamese restaurant or takeaway, that dish was very likely flavoured with some fish sauce which is often made with anchovies.  And what about Worcestershire sauce?  Yep...did you know that anchovies is a key ingredient in that?  What about those fancy pants olive tapenade that you've smeared on your crusty bread or cracker? Ah-uh...

There, no more excuses. :-)

Braised Cabbage & Butter Beans in Anchovy Sauce
This is enough for 2 if it's a main meal, but can be stretched for 3 if eaten as a side with poached or baked fish, or some grilled chicken breast.

1 onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
6 pieces of anchovies (soaked in oil), plus a tsp of the oil
1/4 head of a large cabbage, sliced
1/2 cup of water
Cracked black pepper
1 can of butter beans, rinsed
A knob of butter (oh...about 30g)
1/4 cup grated or shaved parmesan (or any hard good melting cheese you prefer)

  1. Heat some lightly flavoured oil (like rice bran) in a deep pan over medium-low heat and saute the onion, celery and garlic until soft and translucent.
  2. Add the anchovies and the anchovy oil and saute until the anchovies are melted.
  3. Add the cabbage and saute for 1-2 mins.  Add the cracked pepper to taste.
  4. Then add the water, lower the heat to medium-low and slowly cook the cabbage uncovered until cooked through and soft - but still with a tiny bit of bite, unless you like it soft.  Make sure you stir it every now and again to prevent burning or sticking.
  5. Once the cabbage is cooked, add the butter beans and cook a little further to heat the beans through.
  6. Just before serving, add the butter and parmesan and stir through till melted.
  7. Serve with sides of crusty bread slathered with butter.  No seriously, do just that.  It goes so well with this cabbage dish!


  1. Cabbage has a natural sweetness that I think is beautiful. I didn't realise it had a bad rep! As for anchovies, I'm good with them as long as they're not super salty. I'm liking the look and sound of this - very warm and comforting!

    1. Same here - I didn't know that so many people didn't like cabbage! Growing up in Singapore, it's eaten as commonly as say carrots are here in NZ. And like you, I'm not keen on anchovies on pizzas because they're soo salty and overpowering for me. But when cooked down and melted, it becomes less salty...and you end up not needing to salt your food. :-)

  2. Sounds delicious, I love cabbage, butter beans and anchovies but would never of thought to put them together.

    1. I did this one day whilst experimenting - wondering if I could use anchovies as a flavour base since I had used bacon lardons the last time for this dish. Thankfully the experiment worked, 'cos anchovies aren't exactly cheap to buy!

  3. I would imagine this would be delicious since these are some of my favourite ingredients.

  4. You had me at anchovies. What a delicious dish and oh so perfect for this cold weather.

    1. It definitely is John. Very simple and satisfying. :-)

  5. Garlic and ginger taste good with cabbage.


Thanks for leaving me your comments - I love getting them! And I promise I'll reply to all of them. Cheers! :-) x.