Cabbage. This word often brings up images of drippy boiled leaves and pungent smells. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie Bucket and his family were so poor they had to live off a diet of cabbage soup each day, the idea being that cabbage soup was just one of the miseries Charlie and his family had to endure before they retired to a life of nirvana at Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Although I wouldn't want to eat cabbage every day, it's unfair to this lovely cruciferous vegetable, full of antioxidants and cancer fighting agents, to have such a bad reputation.
People in other parts of the world love cabbage. It is a staple across northern and central Europe, where it is the basis for German kraut and Polish bigos (not to mention Russian borscht). The French also use cabbage in a variety of dishes, often braised. Kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish, is a staple in Korean cuisine, and different types of cabbages are standard fare in China and other parts of Asia.
Although many of the international cabbage dishes I list above require cooking the cabbage for lengthy periods of time, these dishes are cooked according to time-tested methods to produce amazing regional cuisines. This is not how the poor cabbage has been treated in America. The simple and sad truth is that many Americans have had a tendency to overcook their vegetables. Most vegetables, even the sturdiest and crispest, lose their appeal (and a load of nutrients) when overcooked. Cabbage, however, just gets plain stinky if you cook it too long, especially if you are boiling or steaming it on its own. Although it can be fine cooked in a nice New England Boiled dinner (i.e., corned beef with cabbage), this hearty winter vegetable really shines when the life isn’t cooked out of it. So, for a home chef, the secret to delicious cabbage may be simply to barely cook it or not cook it at all.
Following are a couple of cabbage recipes my family loves. In both I use Savoy cabbage, but you could just as easily use Napa cabbage or a "standard" cabbage. The first is for a Fresh Kraut with Bratwurst where the cabbage is cooked just long enough to soften, but not any longer. The key to this recipe is to cut the cabbage into thin slices so you end up with small slivers that cook quickly. I first made this dish because my daughters both have an acute sense of smell and I didn't want them to be turned off by a cabbagy aroma. The result was a hit. Sautéed with olive oil, fresh onions, and fennel and then steamed with cider vinegar, it's a wonderful accompaniment to savory sausage.