A new leaf
Mar./Apr. 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Vinit Satyavrata, Sarah Lee and Richard Green
Versatile cabbage can be a go-to ingredient any time of year
More online: Recipes
It's not easy to ignore cabbage during the month of March.
Chef Rachel Main Holst shows a fancier side of her favorite vegetable: grilled cabbage.
The hardy, leafy vegetable is available year-round, but it tends to get most of its attention around the time shamrocks and green beer take the stage, thanks to that traditional meal that's become synonymous with St. Patrick's Day: corned beef and cabbage.
The rest of the year, it returns to being more of a supporting player than a star, maybe making an appearance at a summer picnic in the form of coleslaw or on top of a Reuben sandwich as sauerkraut.
But for chef Rachel Main Holst, who runs a catering business in Ventura County, where much of California's cabbage crop is grown, cabbage is not only her favorite vegetable, but she said its versatility allows her to incorporate it into some of her fancier dishes.
"It's a wonderful product because, No. 1, it's inexpensive; No. 2, it looks beautiful; and No. 3, it maintains its texture," she said. "So all three of those are really great when you're looking at making something for a buffet or party."
Grower Colby Pereira holds a head of red cabbage from her farm in the Salinas Valley.
Holst's fondness for cabbage—a member of the cruciferous family that includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale—traces back to her childhood. Growing up in Louisiana, she said cabbage was a food staple for her family, and one of her favorite ways to eat it is still the way her mom used to make it.
"We were very poor, so she didn't have a lot to cook with, but we always had cabbage," she said. "She would stew it in a little bit of butter and it was just so comforting. I absolutely loved the stuff."
Culinary school opened Holst's eyes to all the different varieties of cabbage—not just the sweet, green cabbage she grew up with, but the more bitter variety used to make sauerkraut, as well as red, savoy and napa cabbage. She also discovered a whole new side to her favorite vegetable.
Workers harvest and load heads of green cabbage from a field in Ventura County, a region that grows the crop year-round.
"A lot of the chefs that I worked for were turning this lowly cabbage that I grew up with into amazingly wonderful cuisine," she said.
Braise it with sausage, chicken and other meats, and you will get a classic French dish called choucroute garnie. Toss shredded cabbage with Udon noodles, red bell peppers and a sesame vinaigrette, and it becomes an Asian slaw. Boil the leaves, stuff them with rice and raisins and then cook them in a tomato sauce for a different twist on stuffed cabbage.
A seasonal force
Corned beef and cabbage, however, remains a driving force for cabbage sales around St. Patrick's Day. Demand for green cabbage typically goes up 50 percent to 75 percent beginning about two and a half weeks before the March 17 holiday, as retailers and restaurants prepare to offer promotions on cabbage, said Craig Smithback, who markets cabbage for Freshkist Produce, a grower-shipper of fresh vegetables with farms in the Santa Maria and Imperial valleys.
What boosts consumption the rest of the year is the popularity of salad mixes featuring cabbage, including coleslaw, as well as new recipes for cabbage and growing interest from health-conscious consumers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.
"Not only is cabbage good year-round, but if people ate it year-round, they'd probably feel a little bit better," Holst said.
She said she always has sauerkraut in her house and puts it on everything—from chicken sandwiches to pork chops—or just eats it straight. She orders a side of coleslaw whenever she sees it on a menu. She even loves the smell of cabbage growing in the fields of the Oxnard Plain as she drives down the Camarillo grade of Ventura Highway.
Handpicked and plentiful
In those nearby fields you'll find cabbage farmer Danny Pereira, who manages Rio Farms, which grows green and red cabbage used to make coleslaw, salad mixes and eggrolls. The farm ships about 1.25 million pounds of green cabbage and about 100,000 pounds of red cabbage per week to local processors, mostly in Southern California.
Transplants grown in a greenhouse are planted directly in the ground by machine. It takes 67 to 110 days to grow a head of green cabbage, depending on the time of year. The crop is then harvested by hand.
Ventura County farmer Danny Pereira, left, stands with chef Rachel Main Holst in a cabbage field that's ready for harvest. Danny Pereira is Colby Pereira's brother-in-law.
Because cabbage is a cool-season crop, the temperate climate of Ventura County—with its moderate days and cool nights—makes it a great place for growing cabbage year-round, Pereira said.
"Cabbage doesn't like extreme temperatures," he said. "They don't like a hard frost and they don't like real warm temps. That's why this county has ideal conditions."
Monterey, Imperial, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties are the state's other top regions for cabbage production.
California leads the nation in cabbage grown for the fresh market, accounting for about 24 percent of total U.S. production, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Other major producing states include New York, Texas and Georgia. China remains the world's top producer.
Nearly half of the nation's cabbage crop is used to make coleslaw. Fresh, whole-head cabbage accounts for about 35 percent of the U.S. crop, with the rest going to make sauerkraut and other fresh-cut products.
Farmer Pereira said while he enjoys coleslaw all year long, his favorite meal is still sopas, a Portuguese dish that uses cabbage with beef roast, whole white rose potatoes, carrots, onions and spices cooked in red wine.
"My mom used to make it," he said. "It's delicious."
Using your head
Grill it …
Vegetables are great on the grill, but few people think to include cabbage. Chef Rachel Main Holst says adding that charred flavor to cabbage really enhances its flavor. "If you burn a cabbage leaf and try it, you'd probably think it's delicious," she said. Add a Thai dressing and suddenly cabbage becomes a showstopper "rather than the thing you're trying to just throw into something."
Pair it …
What else goes well with cabbage besides corned beef? Another classic pairing is raw cabbage and fresh apples. Toss them together with some shaved fennel bulb, a bit of sour cream, apple cider vinegar, blue cheese and toasted pine nuts for a refreshing salad.
But don't smother it ...
Adding too much mayonnaise can ruin coleslaw, Holst says. Rather than trying to mask the cabbage with lots of mayonnaise, she suggests using good-quality vinegar, a bit of salt and maybe an herb to bring out the nutty and sweet flavors in cabbage.