Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Cabbage

What do you think about when you reflect upon cabbage? (Do you reflect upon cabbage? I do. Especially when I have two giant specimens sitting on my kitchen counter.) Do you pity the poor vegetable, much maligned for its odiferous nature? Do you picture dirty-faced medieval peasants, huddled around a rough-hewn table in a cold hovel, reaching for steaming bowlfuls of cabbage soup? Or maybe your cabbage-y thoughts are happier – of colorful coleslaw at summer picnics, pulled pork sandwiches, hotdogs and sauerkraut? Perhaps you imagine the tingly spice of tangy kimchi, or crispy fish tacos piled high with cilantro and crisp wisps of red cabbage spiked with lime juice? Whatever you think about when you think about cabbage, let’s vow to make 2013 the Year of the Cabbage – super healthy and super delicious, crunchy, hearty cabbage! (And stop thinking about those pitiable medieval peasants – I bet that cabbage soup of yore was tasty!)     

A Brief History

Cabbage is, quite literally, the mother of all Brassicas – the enchanting veggie family that includes broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, collards  and Brussels sprouts. The ancestor of all of these culinary delights is a type of wild cabbage native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean. This cabbage forbearer was of the non-heading variety, more akin to leafy kale than to the compact heads of cabbage we know today. Asian cabbage (i.e., Chinese cabbage) is a different Brassica species (B. rapa) with origins in Central Asia.       

Cabbage was historically loved as both food and medicine: the ancient Egyptians were fans of the vegetable, first documented in the 19th Egyptian dynasty (1292 to 1187 BCE); the ancient Greeks believed that cabbage first sprang from Zeus’s sweat (this, apparently, was a good thing); and the ancient Romans were gaga over cabbage as a nutraceutical. In fact, Cato the Elder, ancient Roman statesman and author, said this about the vegetable in his treatise On Agriculture: “Of the medicinal value of the cabbage: It is the cabbage which surpasses all other vegetables.” He goes on to describe the vegetable’s usefulness as a cure for boils and sores, all manner of digestive ills and headache. (Read the fascinating translation of Cato here.) The ancient Roman cookbook Apicius also contains a great many cabbage recipes, including many for “cabbage shoots,” which sounds positively delightful.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, headed cabbage wasn’t developed until at least the 1st century CE in Northern Europe – and these early cabbage heads were pretty tiny. The large, round heads we think of as belonging to true cabbage came later, and by the Middle Ages had spread all over Europe.

Factual Nibbles

  • The English word “cabbage” comes from the Latin word for “head” (caput), probably via French slang for head (caboche). The word “caboche” also means “blockhead” or “moron” – this seems to be the origin of the pejorative “cabbagehead” (“moron”). (Cabbage Head also happens to be a hilarious reoccurring character on the 80s TV show Kids in the Hall.)
  • Food scientist Harold McGee notes that green cabbage contains the second highest amount of “sulphur pungency precursors” – basically, the stuff that makes cabbage smell like (ahem) flatulence when it is overcooked. Cabbage’s tiny cousins Brussels sprouts lead in the stinky smell department. 
  • Cabbage also contains a great deal of isothiocyanate, the compound that is responsible for the veggie’s delicious bitter taste and what gives mustard oil its bite (mustard is a cabbage relative). 

Cultivation

Cabbage is an easy-to-grow, cold-hardy vegetable. (That’s why medieval northern European peasants were such cabbage fans. It was the Little Ice Age, after all.). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) handy-dandy crop production visualization tool (highly recommended for all of you food/map nerds out there), China, India, Russia, Korea and Japan lead the world in cabbage cultivation. California and New York lead the US in cabbage growing.

Seasonality

Cabbage is in season from fall through early spring. Because they can be cold-stored for such a long time (we’re talking months), they are an ideal vegetable for the dead of winter. 

Environmental Impact

Although cabbage’s bitter bite and sometimes-sulpherous smell are the result of natural compounds that repel pests, the vegetable does make an appearance on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, landing at number 45 (out of 45). But the good news is that cabbage is ranked fifth on the EWG’s “Clean Fifteen” – fruits and vegetables with the lowest amount of pesticide residues. However, if you are concerned at all about pesticide use, go for organic cabbage  or check with your local cabbage farmer about his/her growing practices. (*And check out our vegetable rule of thumb for additional info.)

Characteristics

Cabbage types common in Western (European) cuisine are the green, red and Savoy (my personal favorite, with beautiful wrinkly leaves) varieties, while so-called “Chinese” cabbage usually refers to either Napa cabbage or bok (pak) choy

Nutrition & Effects on the Body

I’m paraphrasing Cato here – cabbage is, like, really, really good for you. Cabbage in general is loaded with vitamin C, vitamin K and fiber, and is a good source of folate, potassium and even calcium. All cabbage varieties also contain glucosinolates, the sulphur-y smelling compounds that are thought to be cancer-preventing chemicals. Red cabbage is really the nutritional bomb – it’s loaded with all of the above, plus lots of vitamin A and even morevitamin C than green cabbage. Red cabbage is also rich in polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants.
  
Green cabbage leaves stuck in one’s bra are a common home remedy for swelling and pain that occasionally occurs during breastfeeding. (This formerly nursing mom can attest to the effectiveness of the cabbage leaf treatment!) Cabbage leaves are also popular natural remedies for sprains. Additionally, cabbage juice is turning out to be a possible effective cure for peptic ulcers.

 
What to Look for

Red and green cabbage should have a firm, tight head and feel heavy for their size, with no black or soft spots. Savoy cabbage is generally a bit “looser,” meaning that the leaves don’t form as dense of a head as the red and green varietals. Napa cabbage is also looser and usually forms a more elongated, barrel-shaped head. For all varieties of cabbage, it’s perfectly okay if the outer leaves have a bit of wilt or discoloration – you’ll strip those off before you use it, anyway.

What To Do with It

Storage

Whole cabbage can be stored in your fridge for a long, long time – up to two months or more. Cut cabbage heads wrapped in plastic will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks. Don’t wash your cabbage before you store it – washing the head will just accelerate its decline. Keep that sucker dry!

Cooking

Cabbage can be eaten raw, braised, steamed, boiled, pan-fried (like in the recipe below) and even roasted. Whatever you do, don’t overcook it! Cooking cabbage too long – especially in water – gives off the distinctly stinky smell that has caused a bit of an image problem for the vegetable. 

Cabbage pairs surprisingly well with a number of different flavors and can stand up to bold spices – think chiles, cumin, juniper berries, caraway seed. It’s classically paired with pork, game (like duck), apples and nuts (walnuts and chestnuts are divine) and is an essential ingredient in many Chinese, Korean, Indian and Italian dishes. Cabbage is also important in Eastern European cookery – probably the most famous dish is stuffed cabbage and its variations. Irish (and Irish-American) cuisine also relies heavily on cabbage – of course, there is the ubiquitous St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage, but perhaps the most common Irish cabbage dish is colcannon, made with potatoes and cabbage (or kale). There is even a traditional Irish song inspired by the dish!  Cabbage is also an essential ingredient in coleslaw (I like mine made with yogurt).

Pro Tips

If you can’t stand the lingering smell that cooking cabbage brings, below are a couple of tips I’ve come across that are supposed to help. Number one: don’t overcook your cabbage! If you quickly sear cabbage (see recipe below for the method), you’ll notice hardly any stinky smell. Other tips:

  • Don’t cook cabbage in aluminum pans – go for stainless steel or enameled cast iron.
  • Add a bay leaf to the cabbage while cooking.
  • Add a few drops of vinegar to the cooking water or wipe the inside lid of the pan with vinegar.
  • Add a wedge of lemon to the cabbage while cooking.


Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar though Preservation

No article about cabbage would be complete without a mention of sauerkraut – essentially, cabbage that has been left to ferment in salt brine through the process of lacto-fermentation. Besides being The Best topping for a hotdog – with mustard, of course (cream cheese be damned), sauerkraut is majorly important in the cuisine of Germany, Eastern Europe and of Alsace (France). My favorite dish made with sauerkraut is choucroute garnie, an Alsatian delight made with lots of pork and sausage and duck fat. (It’s a once every couple of years kind of dish!) If you want to try your hand at making sauerkraut – it is actually shockingly easy – here’s a great recipe from fermentation guru Sandor Katz. I’ve got a crock of hot pink kraut (made with green and red cabbage) going on my counter as we speak.

Likewise, no cabbage-y tome would be comprehensive without a discussion of kimchi, the national dish of Korea. While kimchibasically refers to any fermented vegetable (there are dozens of types of kimchi, and there is even a kimchi museum in Korea, which I think would be a pretty fun time), cabbage-based kimchi is especially common. Usually made with Napa cabbage, dried chiles and some type of fermented fish (or shrimp), kimchi, like sauerkraut, is created through the magic of lacto-fermentation. Here’s a great recipe if you want to try your hand at homemade kimchi. 

Both kimchi and sauerkraut are excellent ways to preserve fresh cabbage long term (weeks to months), but fresh cabbage can also be frozen

Recipe

Pan-Fried Red Cabbage with Apples and Poppy Seeds

My favorite way to cook cabbage is in a very hot pan with a bit of olive oil and butter – the heat of the pan transforms the veggie from sulphurous to sweet and wonderfully complex. Nuts and seeds are a perfect match with red cabbage, in particular: I like the very subtle texture and nutty flavor of poppy seeds, but caraway seeds or even chopped walnuts would be excellent.

The possibilities for this method are endless – try experimenting with different flavors and different varieties of cabbage. Sometimes I add in a slice of diced bacon or a couple of slices of shredded prosciutto along with the onion for a heartier dish, or I toss in a sliced green chile for heat.


Serves 4 as a side.

Ingredients:
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, sliced thin
1 small, tart apple (such as Granny Smith or Braeburn), diced fine
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
4 cups finely shredded red cabbage (from about ¼ ; of a large cabbage) (see note)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Pinch of sugar
2 tablespoons good quality apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon water
Additional salt and pepper, to taste

Method:

  1. Add the butter, extra virgin olive oil and sliced onions to a large (10 to 12 inch) heavy skillet. Turn the heat to medium high and cook and stir until onions just start to wilt and become fragrant, about 2-3 minutes.
  2. Add the diced apples and cook and stir another 2-3 minutes, adjusting the heat down if the butter starts to smoke.
  3. Add the poppy seeds; cook and stir 1 minute.
  4. Turn the heat up to high and immediately add the cabbage, a generous pinch of salt, and a pinch of sugar. Cook and stir until the cabbage starts to wilt and brown in spots (purple cabbage will get darker purple around the edges), 4-5 minutes.
  5. Add the apple cider vinegar and water and cook until liquid has evaporated, less than 1 minute.
  6. Taste and add additional salt and pepper, as needed. An additional splash of vinegar would not be out of place, either.

Note: I find that using a Japanese or French mandoline the best tool to make very thinly shredded cabbage for this recipe. If you do not have a mandoline, a very sharp knife works well, too, but your slices likely won’t be as thin. You therefore may need to add an additional teaspoon or two of water to effectively wilt your cabbage. 

(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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