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.
The second dish is for a crisp cabbage and beet salad. With an Asian-inspired peanut dressing, it has a tangy flavor and a crunchy texture. Tangerine slices add a fresh burst of sweetness and roasted peanuts give it a slightly salty twist. Slicing up the cabbage is a breeze, and if you use the shredding attachment on your food processor, shredding the beets takes only a minute or two. Overall, this dish take less than ten minutes to assemble and is a great alternative to a regular lettuce salad, or a traditional cole slaw. It's a perfect light meal by itself, but would be great with roasted or fried chicken or pork.
There is a wonderful French phrase, "ma petite chou," which is a term of endearment for someone who is much loved. The literal translation is "my little cabbage." It seems perfect that a vegetable so sweet and healthful, yet hardy and reliable, should be the description for one's beloved in France. Maybe one day, once people stop cooking cabbage to death, Americans will come to love it just as much.
Fresh Kraut with Bratwurst
Makes 4-6 servings
Ingredients for Kraut
½ large white onion
1 fennel bulb
½ large Savoy cabbage
2 Tbsp olive oil
¼ cup cider vinegar
½ tsp celery seed
½ tsp salt
Dash of black pepper
Ingredients for Bratwurst
1 Tbsp olive oil
3 large potatoes sliced into ¼-inch chunks
1. Place bratwurst and potatoes in a baking dish (I like to use my large cast iron pan)
2. Mix in olive oil and salt so the potatoes and sausages are thorough coated on all sides.
3. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.
4. Turn bratwurst and stir potatoes, bake for another five minutes.
5. When bratwursts are almost ready, cut onion, fennel, and cabbage into thin slices.
6. Heat a large sauté pan on medium high and add olive oil to the pan once it’s hot.
7. Sauté onion for about five minutes, or until soft.
8. Add fennel and cook for another 3 minutes.
9. Add cabbage, being sure to spread the leaves out so they look shredded.
10. Add celery seed, salt, and pepper and then stir.
11. Add cider vinegar and immediately cover.
12. Lower heat to medium-low and cook cabbage for five minutes or until soft. Stir if heat seems too high as you don’t want to burn or char the vegetables.
13. Taste and add more salt or pepper if desired.
14. Serve alongside bratwurst.
Fresh Cabbage and Beet Slaw with an Asian Peanut Dressing
Makes 2-4 servings
Ingredients for Salad Dressing
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 tsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp peanut butter (crunchy or creamy)
2 tsp honey
½ tsp minced ginger or ¼ tsp powdered ginger
1 tsp chopped mint
1 garlic clove smashed and chopped
Green part of one green onion chopped
Ingredients for Salad
½ cabbage sliced
2 large or 4 small raw beets shredded
2 seedless tangerines divided
½ cup snow peas slivered
¼ cup roasted peanuts
1. Add all the salad dressing ingredients in a bowl and mix well, making sure to incorporate the peanut butter.
2. Slice the cabbage thinly.
3. Peel the beets and then shred them. You can do this in a food processor using the shredding insert, or you can grate them by hand (warning: the latter will make your hands very red).
4. Sliver the snow peas.
5. Peel and divide the tangerines
6. Lay the cabbage on each plate, being sure to separate the leaves so they look shredded.
7. Top the cabbage with the shredded beets and slivered snow peas. (Note: Be sure not to mix the beets with the other vegetables as the beets will stain everything pink.)
8. Lay the tangerine slices on top.
9. Top with the peanuts.
10. Garnish with a sprig of mint.
11. Drizzle enough salad dressing on top to coat the vegetables, without drowning them.