Guide to Cabbage


Cabbage, sliced and cooked, can be one of two things: delicious crisp, with a mild pleasant flavor - or overcooked and horrible! Cabbage and other brassicas contain the chemical hydrogen sulphide, which is activated during cooking at about the point the vegetable starts to soften. It eventually disappears, but during the in-between time, cabbage acquires its characteristic rank smell and flavor. So either, cook cabbage briefly, or cook it long and slow, preferably with other ingredients so that flavors can mingle.

History : Cabbage has a long and varied history. However, because there are many varieties of cabbage under the general heading of "brassica", it is difficult to be sure whether the variety the Greeks and Romans enjoyed is the same as today's round cabbage, or something more akin to kale or even Chinese cabbage. The round cabbages we know today were an important food during the Dark Ages, and by the Middle Ages they were in abundance, as you will see if you study the paintings of that period. These commonly show kitchen tables or baskets at market positively groaning with fruit and vegetables, and cabbages in all their shapes and sizes were often featured. Medieval recipes suggest cooking cabbages with leeks, onions and herbs. In the days when all except the very wealthy cooked everything in one pot, it is fair to assume that cabbages were cooked long and slow until fairly recently.

Varieties -

Savoy Cabbage : This is a variety of green cabbage with crimped or curly leaves. It has a mild flavor and is particularly tender, thus needing less cooking than other varieties.

Spring Greens : These have fresh loose heads with a pale yellow-green heart. They are available in spring and are delicious simply sliced, steamed and served with butter.

Green Cabbage : The early green, or spring, cabbages are dark green, loose leafed and have a slightly pointed head. They have little or no heart as they are picked before this has had time to develop. Nevertheless, they are a very good cabbage and all but the very outside leaves should be tender. As the season progresses, larger, firmer and more pale green cabbages are available. These are a little tougher than the spring cabbages and need longer cooking.

Red Cabbage : A beautifully colored cabbage with smooth firm leaves. The color fades during cooking unless a little vinegar is added to the water. Red cabbage can be pickled or stewed with spices and flavorings.

White Cabbage : Sometimes called Dutch cabbages, white cabbages have smooth firm pale green leaves. They are available throughout the winter. They are good cooked or raw. To cook, slice them thinly, then boil or steam and serve with butter. To serve raw, slice thinly and use in a coleslaw.

Buying and Storing : Cabbages should be fresh looking and unblemished. When buying, avoid any with wilted leaves or those than look or feel puffy. Savoys and spring greens will keep in a cool place for several days; firmer cabbages will keep happily for a much longer period.

Preparing : Remove the outer leaves, if necessary, and then cut into quarters. Remove the stalk and then slice or shred according to your recipe or to taste.

Cooking : For green or white cabbages, place the shredded leaves in a pan with a knob of butter and a couple of tablespoons of water to prevent burning. Cover and cook over a medium heat until the leaves are tender, occasionally shaking the pan or stirring. Red cabbage is cooked quite differently and is commonly sauteed in oil or butter and then braised in low oven for up to 1 1/2 hours with apples, currants, onions, vinegar, wine, sugar and spices.

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