All Hail the Humble Cabbage

Kathryn Dillon

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Amidst the revelry of the holiday season, among the treats and treasures, might I take a moment to sing the praises of the humble cabbage?

If you’re only familiar with cabbage through soggy coleslaw and that rotten egg smell emanating from a pot of the sad boiled stuff, you’re in for a treat.

Cabbage is an unassuming vegetable, yes, but it’s so cheap!

So versatile! So sturdy! It lasts just about forever in the refrigerator and has oodles of uses, all of them delicious.

“Cabbage: a familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head.” — Ambrose Bierce

I could have saved this story for National Cabbage Day (February 17th, in the U.S.) but I’m guessing at least a few of you are feeling as bloated and broke as I am, so you may welcome recipe suggestions centered around a healthy vegetable that costs about $2 per head.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room. That nasty smell we associate with cooked cabbage? It’s the result of overcooking, which releases the gas hydrogen sulfide, which does indeed smell like rotten eggs. No matter how much we might enjoy cabbage, we don’t want that less-than-tantalizing aroma hanging around our house for hours.

While the scent may be impossible to avoid entirely, proper cooking will definitely help. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Cabbage around the globe

Cabbage is one of the easiest vegetables to grow (though I’ve yet to try it myself) and has been harvested around the world for thousands of years. It’s been a staple in the diets of Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, and more recently North America, for centuries.

From colcannon in Ireland to kimchi in Korea, from cabbage rolls in Central and Eastern Europe to thieboudienne in Senegal, almost every culture in the world incorporates cabbage in its cuisine.

Health benefits of cabbage

I get it — no one wants to talk about the nutritional content of vegetables right before the holidays. But hear me out! I’d argue that cabbage has enough redeeming qualities in the flavor department that its health benefits are nothing but a happy coincidence.

It’s low in calories, high in Vitamin C, B6, and folate, and a good source of potassium. It’s high in gut-friendly insoluble and soluble fiber and contains powerful antioxidants including polyphenols and sulfur compounds. (Healthline.com)

Should you run out of cabbage recipes but desire comparable health benefits, cabbage’s siblings in the brassica oleracea family (including Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, kale, and collards) would provide similar nutritional fortitude.

And really, most of us feel better when we incorporate some tasty vegetables into our holiday meal plan. They’ll help stave off the post-holiday sugar hangover.

Preparation methods

Cabbage is infinitely versatile. Here are just a few of the ways it can be prepared:

  • Serve it raw — for example, shredded as coleslaw (salt it first and let it stand for half an hour or so to avoid soggy, watery slaw)
  • Roast or grill it — sliced, brushed with olive oil, until it is beautifully caramelized on the edges. Sprinkle with Parmesan for the last few minutes, if you wish.
  • Sauté it — to a crisp-tender consistency or a softer one, depending on the usage. I adore softer sauteed cabbage mixed with scrambled eggs or served as part of a curry.
  • Braise it — red cabbage stands up particularly well here. Make a strictly savory version with olive oil or butter, wine or stock, vinegar, and garlic cloves, or add some sweetness with the addition of sliced apples and dried cranberries halfway through the cooking time. (You can also add caraway seeds if your family will eat them. Mine will not.)
  • Ferment it — or, if you don’t have the time or inclination to try that at home, buy some delicious sauerkraut or kimchi at the store. Incidentally, if you have a few hours of mostly hands-off time, you can make quick-pickled cabbage to create a garnish with a bit more crunch and bite than sauerkraut.
  • Stuff it, or don’t — there are so many variations on the cabbage roll theme! While the Eastern European varieties tend to include ground or sliced meat, vegetarian versions typically feature rice and chopped cooked vegetables. And for a less fussy treatment, make the filling, chop and cook the cabbage, and turn the whole thing into a bowl. No rolling required.
  • Make a soup or stew — but don’t try to turn it into a weight loss fad, please! All things in moderation, even cabbage.
  • Boiling cabbage has a tendency to create that unappealing smell we discussed earlier. If you like the softness of boiled cabbage, try steaming it instead, to cut down on the odor.

Storing cabbage

Many recipes only use part of a head of cabbage, leaving you enough for a second frugal meal. Sprinkle a few drops of water on the cut side and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. It will last up to a few weeks in the fridge. If the cut side turns slightly brown, just trim it and proceed with your recipe.

Types of cabbage

Most of us are familiar with the dirt-cheap green and red varieties that are ubiquitous at any average grocery, but branching out to try Savoy, Napa or bok choy will broaden your horizons.

Savoy can be substituted for green cabbage in pretty much any recipe (I like using it for stuffed cabbage, in particular, a la Smitten Kitchen’s version). Napa is more delicate and therefore delicious raw or lightly cooked.

Bok choy is delicious in a stir-fry or sauteed with olive oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper. Be sure to include the stalks, thinly sliced — they’re my favorite part!

Note that some varieties of cabbage won’t last as long in the fridge as the standard heads of red or green.

Recipe: Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup

(adapted from 365 Ways to Cook Vegetarian by Kitty Morse)

Ingredients:

1 small head of green cabbage, quartered and thinly sliced
2 medium onions, chopped
1 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes
1 16-oz can of tomato sauce
6 cups of vegetable broth
1 cup ketchup
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 TB Worcestershire sauce
1/4 to 1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper

Instructions:

In a large stockpot, combine the cabbage, onions, crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and vegetable broth. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover and cook until the cabbage is relatively soft, about 30 minutes.

Add the ketchup, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and brown sugar. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pot, and simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes, allowing the flavors to blend. Taste about halfway through to see if you’d like a little more brown sugar. Add as needed. At the end of the cooking process, season with salt and pepper.

Serve garnished with sour cream, if desired. Enjoy!

Notes:

  • I know, putting ketchup in soup seems weird. But when the flavors have a chance to meld, you won’t be able to pick it out of the crowd.
  • This soup freezes well.
  • I recommend thinly sliced cabbage rather than finely shredded. The shredded cabbage seemed to melt into the soup, and I prefer a bit more substance.
  • The original recipe calls for 3/4 cup of brown sugar, which seems excessive to me. I recommend starting with 1/4 to 1/2 cup and tasting it to see if you really think you need more.
  • The original recipe also suggests lemon wedges as a garnish, but since my version isn’t quite as sweet, I didn’t feel they were needed.

Recap

Cabbage is cheap, delicious, and versatile, offering numerous health benefits. It’s steeped in the culture and tradition of our ancestors.

After all, we can’t live on cookies alone, even this time of year.

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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