Combining a cheap cut of beef with cabbage might seem like peasant food, and in many places, it is just that. Relegating it as such, however, absolutely diminishes the delightful flavors and textures such a dish provides. It is, in fact, worthy of many experiments. Carne de res con col, from the Mexican state of Chiapas, is a stellar example.
I came across this recipe years ago, through Diana Kennedy’s Essential Cuisines of Mexico. Therein she describes eating this one morning in the market in Tapachula, Chiapas, a city way down in the southwest corner of the state. One might raise an eyebrow at eating carne de res con col for breakfast, but I wouldn’t – on a fresh tortilla, this is heaven at any time of day.
Such a dish makes perfect sense in a Chiapas market. More than half its people work in agriculture, with cacao and coffee the heavy hitters – Chiapas is the second largest cacao producer, and roughly 60% of Mexico’s coffee comes from there.
Chiapan cuisine focuses more on the indigenous than many Mexican states do, with chiles, cacao, beans, avocados and foraged plants, herbs, and mushrooms at the fore. While game makes up a solid part of a rural Chiapan diet, Spanish influence is felt in larger towns and cities. There, beef, pork, and chicken are found, with beef far and away the most popular.
Employing cabbage as a major note in a dish isn’t unique, or odd at all for that matter. Cabbage happens to be quite good for us – it’s rich in vitamins C, most of the important B’s, A, K, as well as several trace minerals and omega 3 fatty acids.
It’s also delicious, and there’s a lovely variety to choose from. There’s the ubiquitous red and green, savoy, napa, bok choy, and of course, Brussels sprouts, just for starters. In Spanish, it’s called Col or Repollo, and it’s grown and eaten widely. Just like New England boiled dinner, bubble and squeak, lions head, or southern smothered cabbage, dishes combining cabbage and meat are savored worldwide.
In Mexican regional cooking, cabbage comes into play for everything from tacos to stew, and soup to cabbage rolls. I love carne de res con col because cabbage plays a major role, and it really delivers.
The name translates as beef with cabbage, giving away almost nothing while suggesting quite a bit. Make it once and you’ll get hooked. Change nothing but the cabbage and it’ll be a whole new thing. You can use any cut of beef you like, so it’s perfect for leftovers. I highly recommend ground meat – it integrates best.
Chiapan cuisine does not use as heavy a hand with chiles as most other Mexican regions do – though that’s not to say that they don’t like heat – they do. Their signature chile is the chile de siete caldos, the seven broth chile, implying that one of those bad boys has the horsepower to ignite seven batches of whatever.
Chiapan seasoning tends toward warmer, sweeter notes, like cinnamon, pineapple, raisins, pears, pumpkin seeds common in dishes and sauces. There’s German influence there too, in the beer and the coffee, and in some local cured meats – which opens another interesting avenue of recipe development.
This version is what I do, after Diana Kennedy’s introduction, and a subsequent take on the dish by Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo, wherein he introduced beans, (of course he did!) You can and should make a version to call your own.
This is a large batch, meant to produce ample leftovers. While the cabbage won’t be crisp the next day, it will still lend itself wonderfully to a sauced rice dish, soup, stew, or chimi’s. You can halve this without changing ratios if you prefer.
If you use something other than ground beef, dice it so it will cook evenly with the other ingredients.
I like white beans in mine for their ability to soak up flavors, but here again, a change will bring something new altogether – Blacks or pintos or anything from Rancho Gordo would be great.
A deep skillet is a great cooking vessel for this – Kennedy didn’t say what the version she had was cooked in, but if I had to guess, I’d give a clay comal over charcoal the nod. As you’ll see from my image, a wok works great as well. Just make sure whatever you use is large enough to allow you to stir freely, and that the ingredients aren’t crowded – the dish counts on the liquids being evenly distributed and absorbed.
Finally, to really nail the dish, you want to make a paste of the garlic, salt, and peppercorns. The proper tools for this are a molcajete and tejolote, the traditional Mexican stone mortar and pestle – as with those who swear that proper guacamole requires these, I’d tell you this one does too.
Urban Carne de Res con Col
1 1/2 Pounds Beef
1 head Cabbage
2 Roma Tomatoes
1 small sweet Onion
2 Hatch or Anaheim Chiles
1 Cup cooked Beans
4-6 fat cloves fresh Garlic
3/4 Cup Stock (beef, chicken or veggie are all fine)
2 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
1/2 Cup fresh Celery Leaf (original recipe uses cilantro, which is wonderful too)
8 Black Peppercorns
2 teaspoons Salt
Trim and peel garlic.
If you don’t have a molcajete, combine salt and peppercorns in a spice blender, and grind to a powder. Crush, then mince the garlic, and combine all three ingredients in a small bowl.
If you have the molcajete, add garlic, salt, and peppercorns and process into a paste.
Add the spice paste to your beef.
Swirl 2 tablespoons of stock around in your molcajete (or bowl) to loosen up anything left in there, then add that to the meat mixture.
Massage the mix well by hand to fully incorporate, then set aside to marry while you prep everything else.
End trim and dice tomatoes.
Trim, peel and dice onion – you want a packed 1/2 cup.
Trim and dice chiles.
Chiffonade celery leaf or cilantro.
In a heavy skillet over medium heat, add the oil and allow to heat through.
Add onion and chiles, a pinch of salt and a couple twists of pepper. Sauté until the onion turns translucent, about 2 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, stir to incorporate, and continue sautéing until the tomato juice is largely absorbed, about 2 minutes.
Turn heat up to medium high, and add the beef. Stir well to incorporate and sauté until most of the raw red color is cooked out.
Add the cabbage, beans, and celery leaf or cilantro and stir to incorporate and heat through a bit, about 1-2 minutes.
Add the stock, stir to incorporate, and reduce heat to medium low.
Simmer until the mixture is fully combined and coated, moist but not wet, about 8-10 minutes.
Serve with fresh tortillas, and whatever else you like, but you won’t need much of anything else except cervesa frio.