Flavor First: The Humble Cabbage

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Cabbage has been cooking in the kitchens of humanity for a very long time. Illustration from Kuchenmeisterey (Cooking Mastery) by Johann Froschauer, Augsburg, 1507.
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Though not the prettiest plant in the garden, cabbage does beautiful things for our bodies.
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This illumination of a lady picking cabbages is thought to be by Thomas of Cantimpré, early 15th century; original in the Biblioteca Universitaria de Granada, Spain.

Cabbage Extras:
• Herbs for Pottage
• Cauli Verdi recipe

If we lived between 500 and 1500 a.d.–the Middle Ages or Medieval period–we would be very familiar with colewort, a leafy green plant widely cultivated throughout Europe. A lowly potherb (see Herbs for Pottage,), colewort was an essential part of every kitchen garden and working-class diet, yet was not counted in the household food tally that included spices, salt and meats.

Kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli and brussels sprouts–all Brassica oleracea species–are modern descendants of the ancient wild colewort. They belong to the brassica family, and are also sometimes considered cruciferous vegetables, so named for the plants’ cross-shaped (crucifer) flower petals. At least five centuries before Christ, colewort plants were cultivated by continually selecting and reseeding plants with the largest leaves, resulting in a large-leaved kale, B. oleracea acephala (roughly “vegetable garden cabbage without a head”).

When plants with a tight cluster of tender young leaves at the top of the stem were singled out, our modern cabbage, B. oleracea capitata (“vegetable garden cabbage with a head”), began to appear. Germans favored colewort plants with fat stems; these became kohlrabi, B. oleracea caulorapa (“vegetable garden cabbage-like-stem turnip”). Belgians selected plants with tightly packed leafy buds along the main stem, and these became brussels sprouts, B. oleracea gemmifera (“vegetable garden cabbage bearing gems”).

Growing and Using Cabbage

Of colewort’s many descendants, cabbage is the most productive (per square foot of garden space) and arguably the most versatile, earning it a spot in every kitchen garden. Cabbage thrives in fertile, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7.5 and cool growing conditions, such as in spring or fall. For an early crop, sow seeds of an early-maturing variety indoors in flats, about 10 to 12 weeks before your last expected spring frost. When seedlings have several leaves and daytime temperatures reach 50 degrees, plant them outdoors, a bit deeper than they grew in their flats. The heads will be ready to harvest about two months later.

When buying cabbage at the market, select firm heads with loose outer leaves; the heads should feel heavy for their size. Older cabbage often lacks outer “wrapper” leaves and is pale in color.

Store cabbage in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Wash and cut or slice just before serving. To freeze cabbage, coarsely shred it, then blanch in boiling water for two minutes. Chill the cabbage in cold water, then drain well. Pack into airtight containers and freeze for up to six months. Frozen cabbage is perfect for use in stocks, soups and stews.

Looking for an herbal flavor to complement your cabbage? Good choices include celery seed, mustard seed, nutmeg, savory, tarragon, chervil, garlic, caraway seed, thyme, parsley and sage. Cabbage pairs well with potatoes, leeks, onions, carrots, parsnips, fennel and beets, as well as with corned beef, lamb and pork.

New Age Pottage

Medieval pottage was a dish of colewort and other potherbs (see Herbs for Pottage), legumes or meat, or a combination of any of those ingredients, boiled in broth. Pottage simmered all day, and the vegetables would reduce almost to a puree. Cooks sometimes added whole grains, eggs or cheese to enrich and thicken the pottage. The vegetables would be served with the broth in a bread trencher (or with a hunk of bread) and some of the meat, if there was any.

We now know that cabbage is an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of vitamin K, which both benefit the liver. Cabbage contains indoles, naturally occurring nitrogenous compounds known to lower the risk of a variety of cancers, including lung, colon, breast and ovarian. Cabbage also contains manganese, calcium, potassium and magnesium; as well as vitamins B1, B2, B6, folate, vitamin A, omega-3 fatty acids, protein and tryptophan.

The potent sulfur-containing compound sinigrin in cabbage (and its relatives) helps detoxify carcinogens in the body, but sinigrin is also partly responsible for the strong odor of boiling the plant. To get the maximum health benefits from cabbage–and avoid its strong odor–thinly slice the raw leaves and add them to salads, or quickly sauté or steam them with other vegetables and herbs to preserve their sweet flavor.

Culinary herbalist Pat Crocker is a photographer, writer and lecturer. Pat’s latest book, The Vegetarian Cook’s Bible, is available at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States. Contact her atpcrocker@RiversongHerbals.com.

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