Cabbage

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Cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is the ancestor of Brussels sprouts as well as cauliflower, broccoli, kale, and kohlrabi—all of which belong to the same species. The Brassica genus also includes Chinese cabbage, Chinese kale, some mustards and mustard greens, rape (the source of Canola oil), turnips, and rutabaga.

Cabbage has been around for a long time, at least as long as Egyptian hieroglyphics; so people have had ample opportunity to devise toothsome ways to prepare it. For some of us, it has worn out its welcome. A well-bred Radcliffe bluestocking once fled my house as soon as she sniffed cabbage steaming in the kitchen. Cabbage does emit a strong odor, but I think the young woman’s antipathy was based more on unhappy memories of overcooked cabbage than on the aroma itself. I like the smell because it portends a delightfully flavored, just-short-of-mushy wedge flavored with salt, caraway, butter, and a little red wine.

Sauerkraut is the preeminent cabbage preparation. It is almost always a side dish, as in the vile sauerkraut served with dreary hot dogs from rolling carts all over Manhattan. This is a degraded version of sauerkraut’s acme, the French choucroute, a porky fantasia in which sauerkraut plays a major part. An equally sublime first cousin of choucroute is podvarak, a Serbian symbiosis of sauerkraut, fowl, and cayenne pepper.

I am also including tuned-up versions of cabbage recipes from my childhood and perhaps yours: coleslaw and stuffed cabbage. This is not the place for haute cuisine “turned” cabbages, those tiny “heads” reassembled from parcooked cabbages and served as part of the garniture on the elaborately composed platters of the heyday of service à la russe.

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