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Get ahead with cabbage

Mar./Apr. 2008 California Country magazine

There are hundreds of varieties of cabbage grown today, developed to thrive in specific climates and seasons.



Heartier fare continues to be the order of the day, and that includes heartier vegetables like cabbage. Yes, because we live in a global vegetable village, almost everything is available all the time, such as asparagus, berries and stone fruit coming in now from Central and South America. But, the more you focus your produce eye on seasonal selections, grown as close as possible to home, the more assured you can be of freshness, quality and value. Now on to cabbage!

Cabbage is one of the original members of the Cruciferae family, which includes brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower. Wild cabbage was tamed more than 3,000 years ago and can still be found growing along some coastal areas of England, France and Spain. A perennial featuring spindly leaves, wild cabbage bears little resemblance to modern-day heads.

There are hundreds of varieties of cabbage grown today, developed to thrive in specific climates and seasons. While available year-round, the durable veggie shines in the cooler months. Not surprisingly, California is the nation's top cabbage producer.

Cabbage is a versatile and, I think, perhaps an underappreciated vegetable. Raw, there's slaw. Coleslaw is a delicious and fast way to highlight this crunchy veggie. Red, green and savoy cabbage varieties in any ratio with any combo of carrot, apple, fennel and red pepper makes a delightful dish. I think the secret to a really pleasing coleslaw is to make sure all the ingredients are sliced very, very thinly. Add a mayonnaise-based dressing. Mix it up with celery seed, horseradish or a big thwack of chopped parsley for a tasty twist.

The distinct aroma of cabbage cooking comes from the sulfur compounds it contains in abundance. This is more noticeable when boiling or steaming, less so when stir-fried in hot oil—a cooking method that seals the surface and produces a flavorful, crunchy texture. Red cabbage when cooked has a tendency to discolor unless combined with some acid such as vinegar, wine or fruit.

Sweet and sour red cabbage is one of my favorite recipes. Melt 5 tablespoons butter in a large frying pan. Add 2 tablespoons brown sugar, a peeled and chopped Granny Smith apple and 1 cup finely diced onion. Cook, covered, over low heat for 7 to 10 minutes. Add a medium-sized head of red cabbage, sliced thinly, and 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, then cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add 1 cup water, beef or chicken stock and 1 tablespoon each fresh cracked black pepper and salt. Simmer, covered, for 2 to 3 hours. Finish by stirring in about 1/2 cup red currant or seedless raspberry jam. Heaven!

You can steam, stew, blanch, braise or stir-fry cabbage. Just avoid overcooking as this tends to make the texture too soft and the flavor too strong. Cabbage can be made into soup or added to strudel, or the wilted leaves can be used as a wrapper for a variety of fillings, including a ground beef/rice combo which is then baked in a zesty tomato sauce. (Golabkis, anyone?)

Cabbage is good for you, too. Like other members of the Cruciferae family, it has earned a reputation as a cancer-fighter. It's also a fine source of vitamin C, fiber, potassium and other nutrients.

Ripe for the picking

It's always harvest time in California! Here are a couple of other things to try this time of year:

Artichokes: This member of the thistle family thrives year-round in the cool, coastal climate of Northern California, where 99 percent of the nation's “chokes” are grown. Steam or boil until soft, then serve warm with melted lemon butter or serve cool with aÏoli, pulling off individual leaves and scraping them against your teeth as you wend your way toward the prized heart.

Asparagus: This fleshy shoot springs forth from “crowns” generally from mid- to late February through June. Rightly prized as a delicacy from ancient times, asparagus is best consumed when very fresh. Simple preparation is best: quickly blanched, drained, drizzled with olive oil or butter and lemon juice, and sprinkled with salt and pepper.

Rosemary: The silvery green, needle-shaped leaves of this hearty perennial herb carry hints of pine flavor and are a fine complement to many vegetables and meats. Mix 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary with a stick of softened butter, then cover and refrigerate overnight. Use this flavored butter everywhere except perhaps on your breakfast toast.

Blood oranges: These delightful red-hued winter oranges carry a raspberry-flavored nuance. They originated from a “sport limb” in 17th-century Italy, which means a chance red-colored fruit simply showed up on the limb of a fairly basic orange tree.

Pistachios: California is the nation's top grower of these little nuts, which possess a delicate flavor best brought out by roasting. A little salt helps, too. Pistachios are a wonderful addition to couscous laced with dried currants and chopped fresh Italian parsley. They're also incredible cooked into a brittle.


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