The humble cabbage, best known as the main ingredient in cole slaw, or as an accompaniment to corn beef during St. Patrick’s day. But the cabbage has a long and noble history. For me, it was regular feature at Sunday dinners with my grandmother and her sweet and sour cabbage recipe is a real Eastern European treat.
Cabbage is a member of the brassica family and has lots of cousins including kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.
The wild ancestor of cabbage, originally found in Britain and continental Europe, inhabits rocky cliffs in cool damp coastal habitats. Non-heading cabbages and kale were probably the first to be domesticated, before 1000 BC, by the Celts of central and western Europe. Rounded cabbages made a definite appearance between the 6th and 13th centuries. They spread from Europe into North Africa, and later followed trade routes throughout Asia and the Americas.
Many varieties—including some still commonly grown—were introduced in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. During the 17th and 18th centuries, cabbage was a food staple in such countries as Germany, England, Ireland and Russia, and pickled cabbage was frequently consumed. Sauerkraut was used by Dutch and German sailors to prevent scurvy during long ship voyages. Jacques Cartier first brought cabbage to the Americas in 1541–42, and it was probably planted in the United States by the early colonists. By the 18th century, it was commonly planted by both colonists and Native Americans.
Both green and red have smooth-textured leaves. The red variety has leaves that are either crimson or purple with white veins running through it. Red and green cabbage has a more defined taste and crunchy texture as compared to Savoy cabbage’s more delicate nature. The leaves of Savoy cabbage are more ruffled and yellowish-green in color. Chinese or Napa cabbage is another variety available. Chinese cabbage, with its pale green ruffled leaves, is great to use in salads. Red cabbage contains additional health benefits not found in green cabbage.
Selection & Storage
Look for tight, heavy heads, free of insects and decay. Fresh, uncut heads can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Keeping it cold will keep it fresh and help it retain its vitamin C content.
Cover loosely with a plastic bag or use perforated bags. Do not wash before storing, the extra moisture will speed decay.
Pre-cut. Halved or shredded, while convenient, begins to lose its vitamin C content after being cut.
Green. The outer leaves are dark green and the inner leaves are smooth and pale to medium green. If you plan to eat the cabbage raw, use it within a few days. Cabbage that you plan to cook can be stored in the refrigerator for about two weeks.
Red. This variety is usually smaller and denser than heads of green cabbage. The flavor of red cabbage is slightly peppery and it is very susceptible to color change. Cook red cabbage with vinegar (or other acidic ingredient) or it will turn an ugly gray color. Always use stainless steel knives and cookware when preparing red cabbage to prevent color changes.
Savoy. Crinkly, with pale green leaves, these thin, richly flavored leaves are ideal served raw in salads or cooked. Cooked Savoy cabbage does not have the strong sulfur odor associated with green cabbage. Savoy only stays fresh for about 4 days in the refrigerator so buy it when you plan to use it.
Nutritional Value & Health Benefits
There are literally hundreds of varieties of cabbage. The most popular varieties in the United States are green cabbage and bok choy. Cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable and may reduce the risk of some forms of cancer. Cabbage is also high in beta-carotene, vitamin C and fiber. Other substantial nutrients in a half cup cooked cabbage include the following. It’s low in fat and cholesterol.
Tips for Preparation
Even though the inside is usually clean since the outer leaves protect it, you still may want to clean it. Remove the thick fibrous outer leaves and cut into pieces and then wash under running water.
If you notice any signs of worms or insects, which are sometimes present, soak the head in salt water or vinegar water for 15-20 minutes first. To preserve its vitamin C content, cut and wash the cabbage right before cooking or eating it. Since phytonutrients in the cabbage react with carbon steel and turn the leaves black, use a stainless steel knife to cut.
To cut into smaller pieces, first quarter it and remove the core. Cabbage can be cut into slices of varying thickness, grated by hand or shredded in a food processor.
A Few Quick Serving Ideas
- A quick braise of cabbage with 5 tablespoons of vegetable or chicken broth is a healthy way to cook cabbage. Place the broth in a skillet on medium high heat, once bubbles form add shredded cabbage, cover, and braise for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit for 2 more minutes before serving.
- Braise red cabbage with a chopped apple and red wine. You can still serve this to kids because the alcohol will evaporate.
- Combine shredded red and green cabbage with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, and seasonings such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, and black pepper to make coleslaw with an Indian twist.