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In Winter, Cabbage Is King

Fine Cooking Issue 56
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Cabbage suffers unfairly from a poor image. For many people, just the mere mention of it conjures up bad memories. But properly treated, cabbage is sweet, mild, and delicious. It’s also extremely nutritious—high in vitamin C and many antioxidants. Although cheap and plentiful year-round, cabbage is king in winter. Gardeners take note: Cabbages grown in cool weather and touched by frost are likely to be sweeter than those grown in warm weather. At the market, it’s easy to select good cabbage. Choose heads that are heavy and firm. Avoid any with a dried or cracked stem, which indicates an old cabbage that’s liable to be bitter.

The red, the white, and the green

There are three main types of European-style (as opposed to Chinese) cabbage, including green (sometimes called white); savoy, with lovely crinkled green and yellow leaves; and red. Green cabbage is my standard choice, and works well with any of the slaws, sautés, braises and soups described below. Savoy cabbage has a lighter texture, thanks to its wrinkled leaves, and is especially beautiful in slaw or cut into wedges and steamed or braised.

Green cabbage.
Savoy cabbage.

I prefer to use red cabbage raw, because the coloring that makes it so pretty fades with cooking to a drab gray. But cooking red cabbage in an acidic liquid such as wine or vinegar does help the vegetable retain its color. Avoid cutting red cabbage with a carbon-steel knife or cooking it in an aluminum pot, both of which also cause discoloration.

Red cabbage.

Try versatile cabbage in slaws, sautés, braises, and soups

Cabbage’s sweet-tangy flavor complements a wide variety of foods, making it extremely versatile. Cooked, it’s a good counterpoint to beef, pork, chicken, game, and dried beans of all colors; raw or quickly stir-fried, cabbage pairs well with fish and shellfish. Good seasonings for cabbage include bay leaf, juniper berries, caraway seeds, bacon, and onion for cooked dishes; try lime juice or zest, ginger, or dill for raw preparations. A great way to introduce yourself to the pleasant flavor and texture of cabbage is to try my recipe for Warm Cabbage Slaw. Or try one of the ideas below.

Make a tangy, oil-free slaw. Toss two cups of shredded cabbage with a tablespoon or two of lime juice, half a teaspoon of salt, and a few shakes of hot paprika. Let sit, toss, and serve as-a base for a winter salad of avocado and mango.

Fold finely shredded cabb age into tacos and sandwich wraps, or toss a handful into a salad for a nice crunch and more flavor and nutrition than lettuce provides. 

Boil slender wedges of cabbage in salted water until just tender. Drain, dress with butter, malt or balsamic vinegar, and a little salt.

Enhance a vegetable or beef soup with a large handful of chopped or shredded cabbage. The cabbage will give the finished soup a deeper, rounder, more complex flavor, without announcing its presence.

Handling tip

I use my Boerner V-slicer to make finely shredded cabbage in a flash, but a chef’s knife works just as well. For wedges, I cut a head in half, lay the half flat and then cut into portions, each with a section of core to keep the wedge intact during cooking. For step-by-step instructions, see Trimming & coring.

Make a meltingly tender braise of red cabbage, apples, and onions. Sauté shredded red cabbage in butter with sliced onions and apples. Add a little wine or vinegar and braise until tender. Serve with grilled sausages.

Wrap up cabbage rolls. My favorite are a Greek version, filled with a mixture of ground lamb and rice, seasoned with garlic, oregano, and fresh or dried mint. Roll a tablespoon of the filling into whole blanched cabbage leaves, arrange in layers in a heavy pot, season with olive oil, salt, pepper, and bay leaf, cover with beef or lamb broth, and simmer until the meat and rice are cooked through.

Braise savoy cabbage for a satisfying winter side dish. Sauté thick wedges in butter until lightly colored. Add chicken or beef broth and season with salt, pepper, bay leaf, and thyme. Cover and simmer until tender.

Make a gingery Asian slaw by tossing shredded savoy cabbage with rice vinegar, soy sauce, and grated fresh ginger. Garnish with a little shredded carrot and sliced scallions.


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