All hail the mighty cabbage. Popular all over the world – think Southern-style braised cabbage, spicy fermented kimchi, stuffed cabbage rolls, tart sauerkraut, and creamy and crisp coleslaws – cabbage can just about do it all. In addition to its low cost and lengthy fridge life span, it is packed with vitamin C and other nutrients. Roman historian Cato the Elder (234-149 BC) wrote, “It is the cabbage which surpasses all other vegetables,” in reference to its medicinal value.
While cabbage has been consumed for millennia, the vegetable’s popularity has risen recently amid the pandemic, and now it’s time to delve deeper. Whether you’re already quite familiar with cabbage or just becoming acquainted, here’s what you need to know to get the most from this versatile vegetable:
Get to know the varieties. One of the earliest text references to cabbage comes from the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (371-287 BC), the “father of botany,” who noted different types. Today, there’s the familiar green cabbage you’ve likely seen in the produce aisle, along with the visually stunning red variety. I adore Savoy for its beautifully textured leaves. Napa cabbage is a delight in its subtlety. And bok choy, sometimes referred to as “Chinese cabbage,” can be found big or small (baby) with loose, deep green leaves. These are perhaps the most common, but there are hundreds of varieties in all manner of shapes, sizes and textures depending on classification.“Cabbage” comes from the French “caboche,” meaning head, and is often used to refer to various forms of Brassica oleracea – the wild plant species from which modern green cabbage originated that first grew along the Mediterranean coast thousands of years ago. However, the term is also applied to members of Brassica rapa, such napa cabbage, and can be used to encompass a wider range of cruciferous vegetables – including broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts and collard greens.
Buying and storing. As with many vegetables, choose cabbages that are firm. Headed cabbages (aka the round ones) should be heavy with tightly bound leaves. Avoid wilted produce, which has lost some of its nutritional content and is one step away from going bad. A little discoloration from bruising is manageable, but avoid cabbage displaying anything other than that for fear of further damage inside. And while cut, partial cabbages wrapped in plastic are enticing to anyone in need of only a small amount, whole heads with outer leaves intact are preferable because they keep the best.In terms of storage, cabbage can last in the refrigerator crisper drawer for a few weeks, but if you intend to eat it raw, do so within a few days. Before refrigerating, suggests the website Harvest to Table, “remove loose leaves and clip the cabbage so a short stem remains, then wrap the head in a damp paper towel, and place it in a perforated plastic bag in the vegetable crisper section.”
Cleaning and cooking. Before using, discard any damaged or wilted outer leaves. Looser varieties, such as napa and bok choy, should also be rinsed to get rid of any dirt between leaves. Bok choy can be washed whole, but depending on the preparation, napa cabbage leaves should be separated and rinsed if meant to be kept whole, or split the head in half and run it under the faucet as you would a leek to clean.Cabbage’s flavor can be bitter and/or sweet depending on the variety, often with a hint of pepperiness thrown in. Green cabbage sweetens as it cooks, while red tends to be more pungent. Napa cabbage is also sometimes called celery cabbage, perhaps an indication of a similar flavor profile, and bok choy reminds some people of spinach.
When raw, green and red cabbage are very firm with a somewhat rubbery texture. Their signature crunch is the “it” factor in coleslaws. Napa is perhaps the most tender of the commonly available cabbages, making it an excellent choice for salads and other raw preparations. And don’t forget the delicious pickled or fermented dishes cabbage can transform into.
When it comes to applying heat, cabbage can be boiled, braised, grilled, roasted, baked in a casserole, stir-fried and more. Green and red cabbage are workhorses and almost always interchangeable in recipes, but red cabbage is firmer, requiring a longer cooking time. Also, you’ll want to add some form of acid (i.e. lemon juice or vinegar) when cooking red cabbage to prevent it from turning an off blue-gray color. (Some believe acid also helps with the dreaded “cabbage smell.”) I love the sweetness of bok choy and how it remains juicy thanks to its thick stems, even after it’s been roasted, steamed or sauteed. Savoy’s pliant leaves make it a great choice for rolling and stuffing. While napa is noted for its tenderness, it can also withstand stir-frying and charring.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Americans used to eat 22 pounds of cabbage per capita a century ago, but recent data suggests we consume only about a third of that today. While I’m inclined to say something about making cabbage cool again, deep down we’ve known of its appeal all along.