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GO TO THE HEAD OF THE CLASS, WITH CABBAGE

Every fall, just like clockwork, I crave cabbage. This obsession stretches back more than three decades and finds its roots in my mother's search for an economical fresh vegetable that she could use to feed the family at this time of year. My mother could work wonders with a humble cabbage, an art that has been neglected in this age of frozen entrees and fast food drive-through.

What a shame. There's nothing easier than steaming a head of cabbage, so long as you don't overdo it. Cooking cabbage for too long breaks down its molecular composition and stinks up the kitchen, which is probably the main reason why cabbage is so often ignored.

One of the convenient things about cabbage is that it can wait happily in the refrigerator for at least a week. That means you can pull it out on one of those nights when you don't feel like going to the store.

When I'm in a real hurry for a side dish, I whack a cabbage into four wedges, throw them into about an inch of boiling water and steam until a poke with a knife finds them crisp-tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Then I chop the wedges up right in the serving bowl and dot them with a little butter. I give the dish a good dollop of Dijon mustard, sprinkle some black pepper and stir. Yum.

For a super-quick supper that's as pleasing to the eye as it is to the palate, try today's recipe for Stuffed Cabbage Bowls, a modern twist on my mother's original recipe.

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Stuffed Cabbage Bowls

Sliced apples or applesauce

Purchased corn muffins

STUFFED CABBAGE BOWLS

1large cabbage (about 3 pounds)

1package (12-ounce) reduced-fat bulk sausage (turkey-pork blend)

1large onion (1 cup chopped)

1 1/2 cups water

1can (14 1/2 -ounce) Italian-style stewed tomatoes

2cups 5-minute rice
Remove the 2 outer leaves from the cabbage, snapping them off from the stem end and being careful not to tear the leaves. Set aside. Remove the next 2 outer leaves by slicing across the stem at the core and lifting the leaves from the stem end, also being careful not to tear them. Rinse all of the leaves with cool water, but do not dry. Set the remaining whole cabbage aside.

Loosely stack the cabbage leaves inside one another and place them in a 1 1/2 -quart casserole dish that has about 3-inch-tall sides. Pour 1/2 cup water into the casserole and cover it loosely (and seal) with 2 sheets of microwave-safe plastic wrap. Microwave on high for 2 minutes. The leaves should be crisp-tender and retain a "bowl" shape. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a 12-inch extra-deep, non-stick skillet that has a lid, begin to brown the sausage, stirring, turning and breaking up the chunks into bite-size pieces from time to time. Meanwhile, peel and coarsely chop the onion, adding it to the skillet as you chop. Cut the reserved cabbage in half. Reserve half of the cabbage for another purpose. Slice the remaining half into 1/4 -inch strips, and chop the strips into bite-size pieces. Add the cabbage to the skillet, and stir.

When the sausage is almost completely browned, add the water and tomatoes. Stir, cover the skillet and bring it to a boil. Add the rice, and stir thoroughly to moisten completely. Cover the skillet and cook for 5 minutes.

To serve, place 1 cabbage leaf on each plate and spoon the sausage-rice mixture into the "cabbage bowl." Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

Cook's note: Serving this meal in "cabbage bowls" is optional, but it does make this peasant dish look more attractive with minimal extra work. If you want to make the bowls, look for a cabbage with outer leaves that are whole and not torn. If you can't find bulk sausage, buy breakfast-style links and remove their casing.

Approximate values per serving (using Nutritionist IV software): 347 calories (31 percent from fat), 12 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 75 milligrams cholesterol, 23 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 891 milligrams sodium.

Send us desperate tales of woe or everyday success stories and your favorite quick recipes to Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016; or e-mail: ddinnersaol.com

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