Swamp Cabbage Heritage

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Sharp, as promised……

“Watch yourself with that knife…it’s sharp”, my dad yelled at me. I have been using his knives for most of my thirty-two years and would be surprised if a blade came out of his pocket that wasn’t sharp enough to shave the hair off of your arm, but he still feels the need to remind me every time I pick one up. It’s our own little tradition. He was right to remind me, though. Today I was finally getting to learn to fine art of making swamp cabbage and let me tell you, no part of this is easy and if you didn’t have razor sharp implements you were never going to get to the sweet center of Cabbage Palm to be able to cook it.

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This pile of 20 cabbage palms made two large pots of swamp cabbage.

It’s towards the end of February, and a little chilly outside. I could never imagine processing this food in the heat of a South Florida summer. It is grueling work for very little pay. First, men go out and look for the perfect cabbage palms to cut down. They need to be of a certain size to ensure enough meat to make the efforts profitable. They use either large axes or chainsaws and take the trees a little above the ground, leaving a small stump. The top branches are cut off, leaving just a trunk to be hauled back for further handling. For a large gathering, a pickup truck bed full will be needed, and the way my family thinks, if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it a lot!

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Tools of the Trade!

Once the cabbage palms are brought in, the real work begins. The next steps are called “booting out” the cabbage. The exterior part of palm is called a boot and a growing palm will shed these as they age. You will find their dried, y shapes on the ground as they peel off fairly easy when allowed to fall off naturally. This is not the case when trying to take green boots to get swamp cabbage. This is where the sharp knives, axes, and machetes come in.

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Taking careful consideration on where to start.

I watch as Dad examines each trunk individually to find the best place to start. You cut up one of the Y’s that form naturally and are able to peel the green outer shell to get closer to the center. Depending on how large the cabbage palm was determines how many boots you will need to peel off. There is an art to this. If the palm wasn’t cut at the correct spot in the field, you will need to use a machete to take more of the end off, or the boots will not peel off, however, you don’t want to cut too high or you will cut into the white gold insides that are in such limited quantity to begin with. A trained eye, like his, will cut at the exact right spot almost every time. This is the most time consuming part of preparing swamp cabbage. I watched for hours as he picked each one out of the pile, struck it to make the boots come off, and peel each layer down until the meat was reached. The pile of stumps got smaller as the pile of boots multiplied with each knife cut.

 

 

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This…gets you that!

As usual, I’m full of questions, and he accepts each one thoughtfully. “Who do you think the first person was who decided to cut down a cabbage palm and look for something to eat?” He thinks it over for a moment and says, “Well, I’m not for sure, but I was always told that the Indians saw the bears tear into the trees and eat the hearts. They got the idea from them.” Who knows if this story is true or not, but it seems like a plausible answer to me. Bears in Florida were very plentiful as one time and I imagined them with their giant claws ripping

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The ending pile is bigger than the beginning pile!

trees apart and sitting down to tear out the hearts. When in reality, they probably started eating the insides of trees that had fallen during a hurricane or tropical storm and had begun to rot, making them easier to get into. The Indians had probably seen this and through trial and error found what worked as a food. When settlers learned of this, they probably added their own spin to the process, which is probably very similar to what I was witnessing at this very moment. It’s pretty cool to watch my dad do something almost identically to how one of my forefathers would have done it many generations before.

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Just like a bear!

I learned many things about the state tree of Florida that day. Cabbage Palms are considered a delicacy in many fine dining establishments, however, they give them the much for appealing name of hearts of palm. Yep, if you’ve ever seen hearts of palm on a menu, you were in fact seeing swamp cabbage dressed up for a ball. You could order it and enjoy a fine interpretation of my heritage, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be nearly as delicious as what I was going to learn to cook later that day.

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Now we’ve gotten to the sweet spot!

The next step cannot be learned just from watching, tasting is involved. Once the trunk has decreased to almost 1/3 of its original size, it’s time to start looking for the prize! You will feel and see a difference in the texture at this point. The meat starts to become a more stark white color and will have more give when pressed, almost like a dense sea sponge. While this is a great way to know you’re on the right track, the only way to know if you’ve taken off enough boots is to taste. Raw swamp cabbage should have a sweet flavor and no after taste. If you taste any bitterness, take off another layer and try again. While some of the bitterness can be cooked off, we’ll be discussing that shortly, you want to help your cook out as much as you can by removing the bitter layers before presenting it to the pot. Once you have gotten to the sweet center, you begin to cut the cabbage into chunks. This is pretty easy, since the meat is fairly soft and is still layered. From one trunk, you may get two large handfuls of useable meat, if you’re lucky.

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A better view of what we’ll cooking!

Now it’s Mom’s turn to take over. While these steps may not be as labor intensive, the knowledge is that she is passing down is invaluable. The recipe that I am being told, because you never write family secrets down, dates back many generations. My family was some of the first to settle in Punta Gorda, a small town on the Peace River, nestled in the Gulf of Mexico, and currently, with the birth of my nephew, the sixth generation of her family tree resides here. This delicacies roots run deep with my family and when anyone in town needs some done for an event, they know who to ask! While there are several families who still cook swamp cabbage fairly regularly, the recipe shared with me is like none other and always leaves you wanting more.

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That bowl only filled about three times.

The cooking is a two part process. Remember that bitter we talked about earlier? By boiling down the swamp cabbage before you actually start cooking it, you are able to skim off the bitter. It’s actually a pretty neat process. You put your swamp cabbage in a large pot and fill with water. Then, you let it come to a slow boil and you will start to notice a bubbly foam appear on the surface of the water. You can spoon this off and discard it. This is whatever bitter flavor might be left after the cleaning process. Now, you may ask why you couldn’t use more of the meat that I just said we discarded, because it was bitter to taste and just take care of that during the cooking process. This is a legitimate question that I asked and the answer is simple….to get all of that bitter out and to make those pieces tender enough to enjoy, you would have to boil it way too long and it would take the flavor out of your good pieces.

Once you’ve drained, the real fun starts. I can never get enough of that glorious smell that is onions and pork fat rendering together. The aromas take me home every time and this occasion was no different. I watch my mom’s movements through the kitchen, like a dancer who had performed this routine a thousand times. She started her roux and at the precise right moment, known only to her, she added the waiting cabbage. Her work is not done here. It’s really just beginning. Once the water is added and it comes to a slow boil, she begins her magic. This is not a dish to just sit and forget. You need to taste and adjust your seasoning to get the perfect blend of sweetness from the swamp cabbage blended with your chosen spices. Just like booting out the trunks, you have to take your time to do it properly or you will miss the beautiful flavors the cabbage palm is gifting to you.

Finished

This is traditional South Florida cuisine at it’s finest!

The cooking process was a tradition that I’ve been waiting to receive for years! I have always heard everyone rave about my Mom’s swamp cabbage, from the time I was a little girl and now it was finally my turn to learn her well kept secrets. This is recipe that evolves with each generation. Every time it is handed down, the recipient is encouraged to add their own twist and that becomes her secret. I’m not sure what I’ll add or maybe my secret will be keeping it the same…..

For the full album of photographs, please follow this link .

Here is the recipe that I have permission to share. While it is a very good recipe and your guests will be super impressed, it’s not my Mom’s recipe! That is a secret that I will be passing along to the next generation.

Tradition Florida Swamp Cabbage

After you have found someone to boot out and cut up your cabbage palm, follow these steps for a delicious treat!

Ingredients:

Cabbage Palm – booted and cut up

Onion – diced

Pork Fat – cubed

Salt – to taste

Pepper – to taste

Your choice of seasonings

Directions:

1. Put your cabbage in a large pot with enough room to will with water to cover the swamp cabbage completely.

2. Over medium heat, bring the pot to a slight boil.

3. When the pot starts to boil and bubbles start to form at the surface, scrape them off with a spoon and discard. You are getting rid of any bitter taste that might be present.

4. When bubbles are no longer appearing on the surface, about 15 minuets or so, depending on how much you are cooking and how well it has been booted and cleaned, drain the swamp cabbage from the pot.

5. Return the pot to the stove and over medium heat, render your fat with the onions until the onions are well sweated.

6. Add the swamp cabbage back to the pot and water again to cover the swamp cabbage for it to boil.

7. Once it starts boiling, lower your heat to a simmer and add your salt, pepper, and any other seasonings, tasting as you go.

8. You will need to taste and adjust your flavors throughout the next few hours while your cabbage simmers.

9. It is done when the swamp cabbage is tender and has a good flavor.

10. Some people serve with saltine crackers or hot sauce, but in my house it tastes so good you don’t need anything but a bowl and a spoon!

If you get your cut up swamp cabbage and aren’t going to cook it right away, you can store it in your refrigerator in water until you are ready to cook it.

 

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