Crisp Polenta Cakes with Braised Cabbage and Beans – Recipe

Crisp Polenta with Braised Cabbage and Beans

Cabbage doesn’t get enough respect in America. True, if it is boiled to death, it produces some of the worst sulfurous smells imaginable. I lived upstairs from the craziest, meanest, nicest old woman in Milwaukee (RIP, Angie!), and you could tell when she was cooking cabbage from a mile away. But slowly braised with a little acid and it becomes superbly flavorful and tender.

Crisp, pan-fried slices of polenta make the perfect counterpoint to the cabbage. The key is to cook the polenta long enough and hot enough to really develop a crunch, otherwise you’ll be eating soft-on-soft. Mush. Bad. You’ll be using leftover chilled polenta, so make this polenta with fennel and apples today, and then you’ll be ready to serve the cabbage dish tomorrow. To chill the polenta, pour the extra into a lightly oiled rectangular or square baking dish and cover with saran wrap. It will be easy to slice the next day.

A simple pan sauce is perfect for this dish. We deglaze the pan that we cooked the cabbage in, in this case using a tasty ale, flavored with caraway and mustard. I actually used an apricot ale, which was delicious. You could also use a darker beer, or a white wine. If you made this with red cabbage, then red wine would be a natural choice (and you would use a wine vinegar or a red-fruit vinegar instead of apple cider vinegar).

This dish feels like it would come from far Northern Italy, near the Austrian border.

I apologize, the recipe is not particularly precise; I made it while improvising and without measuring precisely. It will work, but you’ll need to taste and use your cooking common sense. You’ll probably end up with extra braised cabbage. Not a bad thing.

Crisp Polenta Cakes with Braised Cabbage
Serves 4

  • 1/2 cup olive oil, divided
  • 1 white onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 very small head cabbage, cored and thinly sliced (about 6 cups sliced cabbage)
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar, divided
  • 3 cups leftover cooked polenta with cheese, chilled overnight
  • 6 ounces flavorful ale (preferably not too bitter)
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds, toasted, cooled, and ground
  • 1 teaspoon or more Dijon mustard (whole grain welcome)
  • 2 tablespoons butter, cut into 4 cubes
  • 1 cup cooked white beans, broad beans or gigandes beans, heated (for bonus points, saute them with some butter and garlic)
  • Kosher salt
  • Finishing salt (optional)
  • Fennel fronds (or other herbs) for garnish
  1. Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil over a high flame in a large skillet (not cast iron) with a lid. Fry the onion for 30 seconds. Add the cabbage, and fry, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes, to develop some browning. Reduce heat to very low, add a cup of water and 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and cover. Cook for about 40 minutes, opening occasionally to stir and check tenderness. About halfway through the cooking time, add the cider vinegar and sugar.
  2. About 15 minutes before you are ready to serve, heat another large skillet over a medium-high to high flame. Form the polenta into 8 patties, about 5″ in diameter and 1/3″ thick. Add 1/4 cup of oil to the pan, coating it well. Press the patties flat into the pan so they get maximum surface area onto the heat. Fry until quite well browned on one side, flip and fry the other side. Remove to paper towels and season with finishing salt or Kosher salt.
  3. While the cakes are cooking, remove the lid from cabbage and cook off any excess liquid. Transfer a nice mound of the cabbage to each of 4 heated plates or bowls. Without cleaning the skillet, add the beer, mustard and caraway and a big pinch of salt. Bring to a good simmer. Whisk in the butter, 1 cube at a time, emulsifying. Cook the sauce down until it will lightly coat a spoon. Taste and adjust the seasoning.  You may want more mustard.
  4. To serve, drizzle the sauce over the cabbage, allowing it to coat the plate as well. Spoon a few of the heated beans into the cabbage and sauce. Top the cabbage with two piping hot, crispy polenta cakes, and garnish with fennel fronds or other herbs.
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Posted by Michael Natkin on Thursday, June 3rd, 2010 in Main Courses, Recipes.

12 Responses to “Crisp Polenta Cakes with Braised Cabbage and Beans – Recipe”

  1. Reply
    June 3, 2010 at 8:40 am #

    Sounds good to me. I know you’re a polenta-nut, but I’ll just mention that you can get a similar (albeit distinct) effect using grits. You cook them up a little drier than you might for breakfast cereal, let them sit in a shallow container for a couple of hours in the fridge, and you’ve got grits-cakes, which are great for breakfast (fried in a little of your favorite fat). OR…you can use them in recipes like this one, when you find you’ve got no polenta on hand. And then there are things like jalapeno and grits casserole (you can figure out the recipe from the name; a little grated cheese on the top is nice!), etc.

  2. Reply
    June 6, 2010 at 6:30 am #

    wow, this looks and sounds AMAZING. I just found your blog and I am so excited to try some recipes. Thanks!

  3. Reply
    June 8, 2010 at 8:18 am #

    I had polenta cakes a few weeks ago in a restaurant and wanted to make them at home. I’ll give your recipe a try. Looks great!

  4. Reply
    June 8, 2010 at 1:21 pm #

    I love combining polenta and beans! One of my favorite lunches is crispy polenta cakes on top of white beans with leeks, all topped with an egg. I can’t wait to try this.

  5. Reply
    August 17, 2010 at 11:05 am #

    What a great recipe! And the photo! I really love polenta and this is probably the best way to serve it. Here is my variation: link to
    The outcome: creamy inside and crunchy on the outside, these cakes are healthy and still very satisfying. Zucchinis add sweetness and color to the cakes, making them pretty to look at.

  6. Reply
    March 19, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    We made the braised cabbage and beans part tonight (with the sauce!) to go with some pierogis! It was amazing. Such a different kind of dinner for us, and so so good!!

    • Reply
      March 20, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

      Ooh, love the idea of serving that with pierogis (which I’ve never made, but I’ve eaten some good ones.)

  7. Reply
    March 21, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    How do you get the polenta cakes to not stick? I tried to make crispy polenta cakes the other night with a black bean and corn sauce and they just stuck like glue, even though my oil was heated to near smoking.

    • Reply
      March 21, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

      What kind of pan were you cooking them in? My preference is a perfectly seasoned cast iron pan. Second choice would be non-stick. Also, make sure the cakes don’t have more moisture than necessary, and use plenty of oil.

  8. Reply
    March 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    It was a well seasoned cast iron. It may have been the moisture issue, I used a different polenta recipe and the water ratio was higher. They were very splatter prone. I used quite a bit of oil, Spectrum Og Sunflower Oil, so it was a high heat oil.

    I’ll have to attempt this again. I’d love to try and make them to go with this recipe. Thanks!

    • Reply
      March 22, 2012 at 4:39 am #

      Here’s something I’ve found useful: If you’ve ever made grits for breakfast, and not eaten all of it, and left the pot there for the whole day with the cover on, you’ll know that by evening, the grits have formed into this almost rubbery mass. (I might have done this just once, back in my grad-student days!) Anyhow, THAT mass is perfect for cooking into polenta cakes. So if you have time for the forethought, make a batch of grits in the morning. Pour them into a baking dish so they’re about 1/2″ thick. Shove that in the fridge for the day. Cut into slabs and fry for dinner (perhaps pre-heating a bit in the microwave to make sure they’re heated through). The same approach can be used with corn-meal.

      • Reply
        March 22, 2012 at 6:19 am #

        Absolutely! I love making cakes from leftover grits or polenta. Just to be clear, if it sat out all day, even covered, you probably shouldn’t eat it from a food safety point of view, even if you re-cook it. You want to get it out of the 40-140 degree F danger zone within two hours.

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