Appears in

The Book of Food

The Book of Food

By Frances Bissell

Published 1994

Cabbage belongs to the brassica family which also includes cauliflower, broccoli, kohl rabi, brussels sprouts and many Oriental greens. One of the oldest known vegetables, it was being eaten by the Chinese several thousand years ago.

There are many varieties, with different growing seasons, so they are available most of the year. Look for firm fresh leaves without slime or insect damage. Winter cabbages such as the red, white and Savoy should be solid and firm in the center. Stalks of all cabbages should be clean and unbruised. Although you will probably discard the outer leaves, it is better to buy cabbage with some still attached as they protect the center of the cabbage and help keep it moist.
Raw cabbage is a good source of vitamin C and some vitamin A, and is low in calories. In winter, when lettuces might not be so readily available, firm red and white cabbages make good substitutes in salad. Slice them thinly or grate the heart and dress it liberally with good oil and wine vinegar or lemon juice.

Cabbage can be cooked in different ways. The one way not to cook it is to boil it long and hard in lots of salt water; the nutrients leach out and the smell of sulfur pervades the kitchen. To prepare a head of cabbage for cooking remove the outer leaves and cut the cabbage into quarters, then slice into thin shreds, put into a colander and rinse thoroughly. To prepare leafier spring cabbage simply separate the leaves, pile them together and shred. Rinse thoroughly.

After washing there will be enough water clinging to the cabbage to allow it to cook slowly in its own juices in a covered pan with some added butter, olive oil, goose fat or whatever appeals. Herbs and spices go in at this stage too. Alternatively, stir-fry the cabbage and serve it while still a little crisp. It can become a surprisingly sophisticated vegetable. Stir-frying or braising with a few lavender buds, a sprinkling of brown sugar, a dot of butter and a hint of lemon juice turns it into a very special dish. It also goes well with aniseed flavors such as tarragon, fennel, aniseed itself and Chinese five-spice powder.

Preserved cabbage is a feature of many cuisines. In the markets of Hong Kong and China there are pickle shops selling bunches of pickled cabbage. In Korea kimchee, pickled cabbage, is served at all times of the day. Alsace and Germany vie with each other to claim the best sauerkraut – salted and fermented white cabbage.

Cabbage is still an important part of the East European diet and is essential for such hearty, delicious dishes as golubtsi – rolled cabbage leaves stuffed with pork. I find that the best way to cook cabbage, particularly red cabbage, is to shred it finely and braise it very slowly (for three or four hours) with some thinly sliced onion and the same quantity of apple, a little stock, brown sugar, red wine and wine vinegar. In the best version I have ever tasted, a friend replaced the red wine with port, and kept adding it to the pot until almost a whole bottle was used – extremely extravagant but wonderful.

When available, leafy spring cabbages should be bought for immediate consumption and certainly not kept for more than a couple of days. Firm cabbages will keep in a cool place for up to a week, but there will be some moisture loss in the outer leaves. (14-15)