Alan Tangren: Bright green cabbage
Dear Alan: With St. Patrick’s Day coming up I’m starting to think about cabbage. Can you give me any tips about selecting and cooking?
Alan: Corned beef and cabbage is a traditional combination enjoyed by many on St. Patrick’s Day, whether of Irish ancestry or not. It has had a special place of honor on the tables of generations of Irish immigrants who settled in the northeastern U.S.
The combination of beef and cabbage does have a long history in Ireland, particularly in the coastal areas around County Cork where corned beef was produced to provision sailing ships and the British army. But even in those days Irish cooks were much more likely to combine cabbage with bacon, as beef was a luxury item.
It was only when Irish immigrants to the U.S. found abundant supplies off corned beef in Jewish delis in their neighborhoods that the substitution was made.
Why cabbage anyway? Loose leaf wild cabbage is native to many of the cool coastal areas of Europe, especially France and England, where it has been a staple food for millennia.
Only in the 16th century did Dutch plant breeders begin developing the headed cabbage varieties that we are familiar with today. At that time cabbage became widely cultivated across the northern parts of Ireland.
Varieties of cabbage
Cabbages come in many colors; green, red, purple and white. Some have heads like dense cannonballs, and some are more tapered, with loosely clustered leaves. The leaves of cabbages can be smooth and shiny or dull and crinkled.
Cabbage loves cool and damp weather. In our area it is at its best starting in late fall and continuing through winter and into early spring.
When cooked properly, cabbage has a wonderful crisp/tender texture and lots of spicy sweet flavor. The secret is to not overcook it.
The sweet/tart flavor of cabbage complements meats that may be rich and fatty, like duck or pork. It can be braised, steamed or stir-fried. And it combines well with other vegetables in soups.
Sliced thin, it is also delicious raw in salads like coleslaw, and can be dressed in a lively vinaigrette or the more traditional mayonnaise.
When shopping for cabbage, choose heads that are tight, firm and heavy for their type, with shiny, crisp outer leaves that show no signs of yellowing.
Savoy cabbage forms looser heads because of the puckery texture of the leaves, and has a softer finish. It may be harder to find, but it’s my favorite for flavor.
When you get your cabbage home, trim off the base of the stem and remove any loose outer leaves. Store loosely wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to a week.
Just before using, rinse in running water to remove any loose dirt.
Cabbage, whether cooked or raw, is especially good paired with apple. The following recipe adds bright, spicy cress and earthy celery root to complete a satisfying winter salad.
Cabbage salad with apple and celery root
1 small green cabbage
1 bunch garden cress or small arugula leaves
1/2 small celery root
1 tart apple, such as Granny Smith
1 Tablespoon sherry vinegar or white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
3 Tablespoons olive oil or hazelnut oil
Chopped fresh parsley and chives for garnish
Pull off and discard the first layer of outer cabbage leaves. Cut the cabbage in quarters through the stem and cut out the core. Cut the leaves crosswise into thin chiffonade slices.
Wash and dry the cress or arugula and remove any tough stems. Peel the celery root and cut into thin slices. Cut the slices into matchstick julienne. Peel, quarter and core the apple and cut into small dice.
To make the vinaigrette, peel and mince the shallot and combine with the vinegar, salt, pepper, and oil in a large salad bowl. Add the cabbage, greens, celery root and apple and toss thoroughly. Taste and add more oil or vinegar if needed.
Serve sprinkled with chopped fresh herbs.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill St. in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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