Alan Tangren: Winter is cabbage season
Dear Alan: I’m seeing a lot of beautiful cabbage in the market right now. What’s your favorite way to cook it?
Alan: Most home cooks know cabbage is great for coleslaw, and pretty much essential for St. Patrick’s Day, cooked with corned beef and potatoes.
As we start seeing fewer and fewer of the colorful fall vegetables in the market, it’s good to know that cabbage is at its best in the cool months, from fall through early spring.
Loose-leaf wild cabbage is native to many of the cool coastal areas of Europe, from the Mediterranean up to France and England, where it has been a staple food for millennia. For a long time it was mostly the stems that were considered edible.
In the 16th century Dutch plant breeders began developing the headed cabbage varieties that we are familiar with today. Soon cabbage became widely cultivated across the northern parts of Ireland, and other cool, damp areas of central and northern Europe.
In the early days, Irish cooks combined cabbage with bacon, since beef was a luxury item and pork was more easily available.
It was only when Irish immigrants to the U.S. found abundant supplies of corned beef in Jewish delis in their neighborhoods that it became their meat of choice with 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 has an extended family, closely related to broccoli and cauliflower (flower buds); kale and collard greens (leaves); kohlrabi (swollen stems); and brussels sprouts (lusters of tiny heads).
When shopping for cabbage, choose heads that are tight, firm and heavy for their type, with 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 a week or more.
When cooked properly, cabbage has a wonderful crisp/tender texture and lots of spicy sweet flavor. The secret is to not overcook it.
Sliced thin, it is also delicious raw in salads like coleslaw, where can be dressed in a lively vinaigrette or the more traditional mayonnaise and/or sour cream dressing.
The sweet/tart flavor of cabbage complements meats that may be rich and fatty, like duck or pork. And it combines well in vegetable soups. I especially like it in winter minestrone.
The French soup, garbure, is a hearty combination of white beans, duck confit and cabbage.
I love to use cabbage leaves to wrap fish or other stuffings. At a recent Chef’s Table we wrapped salmon filets in cabbage leaves and poached them in vegetables broth. A lemon butter sauce was all it needed at the end.
Prepping cabbage for cooking is easy. Just rinse in running water to remove any loose dirt. You probably won’t find any!
Unless you need whole leaves for stuffed cabbage, cut the cabbage head into quarters from dome to stem.
For wedges that will hold together during cooking, cut them with some of the core attached. You can easily add them to corned beef toward the end of cooking, and allow to sinner for 15 minutes or so.
Otherwise cut out the core of the quartered head and slice across the leaves, so you end up with thick or thin shreds.
For cabbage that will be served raw, e.g. in coleslaw, try to cut as thin as possible. For cooking, you can cut into 1/4-inch or slightly thicker slices. Then it can be braised, steamed or stir-fried.
If you need whole leaves to make stuffed cabbage rolls, it is easier if you can find savoy cabbage, as the heads are much looser than other varieties.
I any event, cut out the core and place the whole head in a big pot of boiling water and cook for a few minutes. Remove from the water and the outer leaves should peel off easily. They will also be pliable for stuffing. Return the head to the boiling water and continue until you get down to leaves that will be too small to stuff. Those can be chopped and added to the stuffing mixture or cooked at another time.
Easy Braised Red or Green Cabbage
Serves 4 to 6
1 small head red or green cabbage
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thin
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp vinegar, preferably apple cider, sherry or white wine
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
½ cup water
1 apple, quartered, peeled, cored and chopped
Remove the loose outer leaves of the cabbage. Cut in quarters, remove the core and slice about ¼-inch thick.
Place a large sauté pan over medium heat and add the butter. When the butter is foaming, add the onion. Lower heat slightly, then cook and stir for about 5 minutes, until the onion is wilted.
Add the cabbage, vinegar, bay leaf, salt and pepper and water. Cover and simmer 15 minutes.
Add the apple and continue cooking, uncovered, for another 5 minutes. Add a little water if needed to prevent scorching. Correct seasoning and serve.
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 Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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