Cabbage is always there at the supermarket, cheap as chips, but most of us walk past it filling our trolleys with more expensive, often out-of-season produce. It’s considered a food for the poor, but nutritionally it is very rich.
Listen up! Cabbage contains phytochemicals which help fight cancers and reduce DNA damage (the body’s own production of DNA-damaging chemicals and others absorbed by the body). Cabbages are a good source of Vitamin C, being antiscorbutic (they have sufficient to prevent or cure scurvy) and Vitamin K, which assists in the blood-clotting process and protects against internal bleeding, and they also contain beta-carotene and other B-group vitamins, along with calcium, potassium and fibre. Raw cabbage juice is a proven remedy for peptic ulcers. If it doesn’t sound appetizing, mix it with grape juice (juice young cabbage leaves with a little water and slightly more than their weight of black grapes). Most of the goodness in cabbage is contained in the dark outer green leaves, this is why it is important to buy fresh unsprayed cabbages, so that all the outer leaves can be eaten.
Cabbage is an ancient vegetable believed to have originated in the Mediterranean. Leafy and unheaded, cabbage went on to become the granddaddy of our modern-day European cabbages and vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Kale and other green leafy vegetables such as spring greens and collard greens resemble more their ancient ancestor. (Asian cabbages are a separate group.) An assortment of leafy plants such as mustard, rocket and watercress belong to the same botanical family, but out of this group of life-sustaining vegetables and leaves, it is cabbage that has been most maligned.
It’s attributes – being plentiful and cheap, a long keeper, quick to prepare and cook, and so full of goodness that it has kept nations alive in tough times (think kimchi, sauerkraut and the cabbage dishes of Ireland and cabbage soups of Europe) – are often overlooked such is the aversion to the smell of cabbage when it is overcooked. Along with useful nutrients, cabbage also contains sulphur compounds and this is the stuff that smells and gives cabbage a bad name. Poor cabbage, what an awkward legacy to be left with when vegetables of all shapes and colours are getting such good press.
Dealing with the pong factor is easy enough– don’t create it!
There are two ways to cook cabbage: slowly or quickly. When I grew up cabbage was only ever cooked slowly, though fortunately in my home, not boiled to death. My mother served it with lashings of butter, and plenty of salt and make-you-sneeze ground white pepper. Doused with gravy and served alongside roasted meat it was fine fare. It also had a place nestling up to pan-fried sausages, fried onions and potato mash. And a weekend fry-up of bubble and squeak (mashed potatoes and cabbage) was pretty tasty. But I can’t lie – it did smell, just a bit, but my mother was such a stickler for fresh air, even in the middle of winter, that unwelcome smells were soon flushed out. I think where cabbage goes off the rails is when it is kept hot in a warmer or bain-marie, especially if it is overcooked in the first place. Then it smells bad and tastes bad.
Interestingly, there are many European dishes where cabbage is cooked long and slow, for up to 2 hours, after which it emerges creamily tender, and smells more of the other ingredients used in the dish than overcooked cabbage. These dishes are the exception and I’ve never managed to replicate them successfully. Cabbage plays an important role in slowly cooked soups and hearty soupy meal-in-a-bowl dishes of Europe, too, but it can be a trifle overpowering. If you want to enjoy these dishes without the cabbage smell, add cabbage towards the end of cooking, and serve it brightly coloured and crunchy. There’s no law against that.
As much as I have reasonably fond memories of cabbage from my childhood, it was another era. These days I rarely slow-cook cabbage, unless I’m braising red cabbage with apples (more on this another time) because, well, with kids, or guests coming, you don’t want to frighten the horses! Both my kids love cabbage and eat big bowls of it, lightly cooked in butter or olive oil, stir-fried in a wok, or raw, one large crunchy, peppery leaf after another. But we all agree that we prefer cabbage quickly cooked and served as soon as it is ready.
There is something to be said for introducing a little fat to cabbage. When stir-fried quickly in hot oil, the oil seals the cut surfaces of the cabbage and seems to stop the sulphur coming out. Great! Cooked gently in olive oil or butter, just until it wilts and before the sulphur smell starts wafting out of the pot, it is deliciously sweet, slightly peppery and pleasantly crisp.
As well as wilting, steaming, stir-frying or sautéing, cabbage can be cooked in a microwave with good results. Its enemy is water – it dilutes flavour, encourages overcooking and valuable vitamin C is lost in the cooking water.
Raw cabbage has great crunch and an appealing peppery taste. It’s commonly used in coleslaw, but it can be used in regular salads too, in which case slice it finely. Try it with a garlicky dressing with white wine vinegar, a dab of mustard, salt and black pepper to taste and plenty of chopped flat-leaf parsley, or take it down another flavour path with finely grated ginger, chopped garlic, lime juice, salt, coriander and chopped chilli. To the former basic salad add cubed cooked salad potatoes, snipped chives or thyme leaves, and to the latter, ribbons of carrot, slivered snow peas, bean sprouts and chopped roasted peanuts. Cabbage also makes a good fruity salad. Mix thinly sliced cabbage with a slightly sweet creamy vinaigrette (add a little lightly whipped cream to a regular vinaigrette sweetened with a pinch of sugar) and add halved pipped black grapes and mandarin segments. Even thin slices of apple and sultanas work well in this salad. Strew with mint and serve with pork, ham or chicken. For a more robust coleslaw, slice quarters of red and green cabbage into slivers, removing thick stems. Mix with a mustardy dressing, and add crisp bacon pieces, capers and chopped parsley. I’m not fond of raw onion and don’t include it in coleslaw, but whether you do is entirely your choice.
How to prepare a cabbage
White drumhead cabbage (also known as Dutch cabbage) is the most common cabbage, and the cheapest, too. Look for cabbages that still have their outer leaves intact as the dark green leaves have more nutrients, and choose cabbages that feel weighty for their size. Trim the core and peel off outer leaves, discarding any damaged ones. Wash leaves thoroughly under running water; don’t soak cabbage because Vitamin C is water-soluble and will be leached out. Savoy cabbage separates into leaves more readily than regular drumhead cabbage, but generally the latter is so tightly packed that even insects find it hard to crawl inside and washing inner leaves is not necessary. If cabbage is to be cooked by wilting, simply shake the leaves dry, slice and cook with the clinging water. If cabbage is to be used raw in a salad, the leaves need to be shaken, then patted dry with paper towels.
Drumhead and red cabbage are long keepers – several weeks at least in the vegetable crisper. Savoy cabbage, the type with the crinkly leaves, will not keep as long as drumhead cabbage and is best used within days of purchasing. My mother stored cabbages and other leafy greens wrapped in damp newspaper in an old stone sink in an outside wash house during cooler months and they kept fresh and crisp, better than in the fridge – something for you southerners to think about!