ISSUE 12: CABBAGE
I know cabbage isn’t sexy. It’s pedestrian, a peasant food, something to be thrown into Strega Nona’s big cauldron to thicken the offering. But some of you may have had cabbage and black eyed peas in celebration of the New Year: Cabbage, for many, symbolizes good fortune. The Jadeite Cabbage has been called the "most famous masterpiece" of the entire National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan and if you have ever wandered through a gift shop in Chinatown you may have seen some jade bok choy tchotchkes on display. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the cabbage merchant is the show’s equivalent of the ‘My Leg!’ guy from SpongeBob. His cabbage cart gets knocked over, he yells, we laugh. Cabbage heads are used to style Susan Alexandra out-of-stock-in-hours headbands. Oprah showed off her enormous ~organic~ cabbage on IG back in May. The last time NYT Food critic Ligaya Mishan ate in a restaurant was in March 2020 when she enjoyed “hot, gilded pupusas off a paper plate, spooning curtido — cabbage and carrots stung by chiles and vinegar — out of a communal jar.” Cabbages, whether you like it or not, are canon.
Globally, cabbage is popular but Americans don’t really care about it: we eat about eight and a half pounds of it a year whereas Russians, for example, eat over 40 pounds. We also, of course, prefer green/white cabbage over purple/red cabbage which is the less nutritionally dense option. We reserve sauerkraut mainly for hot dogs and though kimchi has made its way into our shopping carts, it is not always made of cabbage! But this is a new year and we are going to make this trusty, available-year-round, not-just-for-slaw brassica a staple on our shopping list!
First we are going to put cabbage into two categories: European and Asian. When reading recipes for “cabbage” this refers to European cabbage aka green/white, red/purple, and savoy. Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa) is classified into two main groups: Pekinesis (napa cabbage) and Chinensis (bok choy). Recipes will call for “Chinese cabbage” and this typically refers to Napa cabbage. While it looks more like celery or lettuce, Bok Choy is also sometimes called “Chinese cabbage” but it should not be prepared exactly the same way. Asian cabbage is often less sweet.
When buying European cabbage, look for compact heads that feel heavy for their size. Outer leaves should be firm, not torn and yellow. If you hear a squeak between two heads of cabbage, they are fresh. Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side (a book I reference in Issue 3), says that even though green cabbage has fewer antioxidants than all other types of cabbage, it is still one of the most nutritious vegetables available in the produce department. To enjoy peak cabbage flavor, Robinson recommends eating cabbage shortly after purchasing as it loses its sweetness the longer it sits in the crisper drawer. (After just a few days it will lose 30 percent of its sugar!)
When buying Asian cabbage, heads will feel lighter and leafier. You want to look for firm, not limp, green leaves and no signs of yellowing or browning on its base. Bok choy can be found white or green stemmed, though usually ‘baby’ bok choy is green stemmed and large boy choy white stemmed. Unlike other greens, bok choy doesn't lose a ton of its volume when it cooks so keep in mind when purchasing that what you see is mostly what you’ll get.
Cabbage does it all: raw, cooked or pickled, it *can* taste good and *not* smell like farts. Farty smelling cabbage is usually a sign that it’s been overcooked. If you steam roughly chopped cabbage for five minutes or less it produces only a small amount of hydrogen sulfide. Aside from steaming, cabbage can be braised, sauteed, caramelized, and pressure cooked.
For mature bok choy, slice a layer off the base and separate the stalks by gently pulling each one off at the base as you would celery. Stalks of bok choy are more fibrous, so separate the leaves and cook the stalks first. Baby bok choy preparations often call for halving or quartering, so with the base intact, you’ll need to spend a little extra effort making sure there is no hidden grit. To core European cabbage, quarter cabbage through the base and slice the triangle of core away from leaves.
Unlike onions, cabbage becomes more bitter as it cooks. Its ability to stay crunchy when cooked is a little something I like to call cabbage magic. Unless you are planning to braise your cabbage, it should be cooked quickly until just tender. Cabbage takes on sweetness when grilled, pan roasted, or simmered low and slow in soups and stews. Cabbage should be juicy with a slight bite when steamed. Overcooked cabbage is what comes to mind when people remember bad cabbage experiences. Cabbage deserves better! Justice for cabbage!
More cabbage magic you ask? During the winter, cabbage, along with root vegetables and other brassicas, survive the freeze by converting their starches into sugars. I learned about this from Joshua McFadden’s cookbook Six Seasons. “More sugar lowers the freezing point and hence helps them survive,” says McFadden. “The consequence of their survival tactic is of course a boon for the cook.” Cabbage magic!
Sausage Queen Cara Nicoletti says she eats this date, feta, and red cabbage salad from Smitten Kitchen “2x a week min.” (above) If you want to soften the the seemingly tough raw cabbage, massage it with salt and olive oil before dressing your slaw, a trick I learned from Julia Turshen’s cookbook Small Victories. “Don’t be afraid to really scrunch them,” she writes. I also have been deeply in love with the bok choy and pea shoot salad at Suzume in Williamsburg for years. (It is topped with a cashew tuile that haunts me)
Last week I defrosted some ground turkey and prepared it with my OMSOM Thai Larb Starter, using green cabbage leaves as lettuce cups. The cabbage crunch was sturdy under the spicy ground meat, I truly can’t wait to make it again. If you hate cole slaw because of mayo, I disagree with you but I also recommend trying this variation of Samin Nosrat’s Bright Cabbage Slaw, which is what they make in the Chez Panisse Cafe. (No mayo!) I have plans of making Andy Baraghani’s Fall-Apart Caramelized Cabbage as a dinner main, by far the most compelling cooked cabbage recipe I’ve seen. Well, aside from this Stir-Fried Celery With Peanuts and Bacon from Carla Lalli Music which offers the spin of omitting the celery and doubling the cabbage. Along with probiotic standbys sauerkraut and kimchi, Curtido is an even more approachable fermented cabbage slaw often served with pupusas that I’m looking forward to attempting.
Unlike fellow brassicas broccoli and brussels sprouts, cabbage does not respire rapidly so it retains a lot of its nutrients during storage. (Red cabbage has six times more antioxidant activity than green cabbage and three times more than savoy cabbage!) Store both European and Asian cabbage in a plastic bag or plastic wrap in the crisper drawer. The bag doesn’t need to be a perforated. European cabbage will last a couple weeks if properly stored, Asian cabbage should last about half as long.
Cabbage is not especially glamorous but it is especially nutritious. When buying European cabbage, look for compact heads that feel heavy for their size. Red cabbage has six times more antioxidant activity than green cabbage and three times more than savoy cabbage. When buying Asian cabbage, look for firm, not limp, green leaves and no signs of yellowing or browning on its base. Cabbage does not lose a lot of volume when cooked, unlike many greens. Cabbage can be enjoyed raw, cooked or pickled.
The freshest picked news from the world wide web
Giant Supermarkets are going to add shelf labels to indicate products from businesses that are women, Black, Asian-Indian, Hispanic, LGBT, Asian-Pacific or veteran owned.
Rachel Handler doing important watchdog bucatini journalism is a must read
Two important reads: Voices From the Front Lines of America’s Food Supply from NYT and Does Regenerative Agriculture Have a Race Problem? from Civil Eats (spoiler alert: it does)
I really enjoyed imagining the bickering that goes on between this sweet Wegman’s train man and his wife about his model train hobby.
Impossible Foods is officially cheaper, per pound, than premium, grass-fed, organic beef.
The Got Milk? Stache is back but on mascots this time, not celebrities.
Thanks for reading! For any and all questions, comments, concerns, or topic suggestions please reach out! email@example.com