Cabbages come from my favourite family, the brassicas, and are also known as a cruciferous vegetable, a reference to the cross, so named for the shape of their flowers. They were domesticated from the European wild cabbage, which was the loose-leafed ancestor of kohlrabi, broccoli, cavolo nero and other members of this mustardy group.
Despite its humble demeanour, cabbage is a vegetable with universal appeal – this is as much to do with its flavour as it is with the ease, speed and high productivity of its crops. Found in classic dishes of the cold northern hemisphere – England’s bubble and squeak and Ireland’s colcannon mash – it’s also just as at home in hot countries, such as the cooling wedge of raw cabbage so often thankfully found alongside the stupidly hot som tum of Thai cuisine. It is cheap to buy and is just as good raw, cooked or fermented – Korean kimchi and European sauerkraut being fine examples. The levels of vitamin C found in this vegetable are amplified once fermented, so as such it was historically eaten by sailors to prevent scurvy; similarly, it was fed to the workers of the Great Wall of China as a vitamin substitute. Cabbage also keeps well and goes a long way – start finely slicing a whole head and watch it magically expand.
A friend in frost
Cabbages grow as a single head from the ground, a mass of tightly bunched leaves that, when fully mature, can be deceptively heavy. Commercially, the harvested plant will be destroyed but if left you will find several baby cabbages growing from the cut wound. I once got a crop of these looser-leafed beauties and they were perfect for pickling whole. If the cabbages are left to go to seed they will shoot out yellow flowers that are actually delicious but probably no good to you if you are a farmer.
Cabbages are a hardy crop and grown year round. They are better in spring and autumn but most superior in the colder months – as the weather cools and there are hints of frost, these clever vegetables produce more sugars as a kind of natural anti-freeze. As a result, autumnal cabbages are sweeter and tend to have a deeper, mellow flavour; ones picked in spring are inclined to have a sharper, more peppery flavour. There is of course an exception to this rule in the form of the sugarloaf cabbage – a smaller football-shaped creature that is better suited to warmer climates, usually grown in Queensland, with a natural sweetness.
Cabbages come in four main varieties: savoy, red, green and Chinese. The savoy, or European, cabbage, is probably the hardest to come by as it’s fussier in regards to growing conditions and therefore the most seasonal. It’s a very pretty variety, usually quite large, with beautiful crinkly leaves, dark green on the outside and becoming a pale buttery yellow the deeper you go. Despite their rough-looking texture the leaves are actually soft and delicate and don’t have the bitterness associated with others in its family.
Red and green cabbages are quite similar to each other, with robust, waxy-looking leaves. They tend to be aggressively flavoured with a strong peppery note to them. The red varieties are an excellent colour, more of a dark purple or magenta, with white ripples, and are usually a little smaller. I often include some when making mixed vegetable pickles as they stain the whole batch a particularly fine and lurid shade of pink.
Chinese cabbage, or wombok, is happily now found everywhere. It’s a soft football-shaped cabbage with a thick spine, sometimes bright green on the outside but quickly fading to a pale yellow heart. It’s a sweet, gentle-flavoured cabbage that can still have a faint hint of spice on the back palate.
Game, set and match
When raw, cabbage can be sharp and mustardy; cooked, it gives itself up to become buttery and sweet. I find that it is best to cook cabbage either hot and fast or slow and gently, as anything in between is when it all turns a little sour and you get that haunting stinky cabbage smell. The nature of the vegetable means it can stand up to strong flavours – a particular favourite of mine is wombok stir-fried with garlic, peanut oil and a good whack of Chinese black vinegar. When braised it’s excellent with strong spices such as juniper and caraway. It matches nicely with the sweetness of apple and is excellent paired with onion, both raw and cooked. The combination of cabbage and pork is found all over, from Chinese dumplings to Polish pierogi. I also particularly like the flavour of cabbage that is chargrilled and slightly burnt.
If you are going to use cabbage raw, cut it, sprinkle it with a little salt, massage it through and then let it sit for several moments. This softens it and adds an extra layer of flavour to your final product. Classic coleslaw doused in mayonnaise is another example of the sturdiness of the cabbage, it being the only salad that can sit for hours without turning horribly soggy!
The downside to eating too much cabbage is the fact that it can leave you feeling a little bloated and does tend to cause flatulence. This never stopped its use in folk medicines – the leaves were used as a compress and it was thought to cure both melancholy and, according to the ancient Greeks, hangovers. This is still thought to be true in Russia where rassol, the juice from fermented cabbage, is drunk the morning after. It seems like it should make sense but I’m not sure if that’s what I would reach for first.
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Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Rachael Lane.
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