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Cheap and Good: Cabbage and its cousins

Aunt Toby loves her a mess of cabbage. All cabbages, actually, anything from the brasssica family will do, including the humble (in alphabetical order) arugula, bok choy, broccoli, broccoli sprouts (Raapi or sometimes called broccoli raab), Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbages, Swiss chard, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, radishes, rutabaga, turnips, turnip greens and watercress.

Despite what I’ve heard, there is absolutely nothing to dislike about any member of the family. If you find one (cough, kale, cough) a bit strongly flavored for you, you can always try it cooked a different way or move on to another, ahem, less pungent member of the family. It’s like being at one of those holiday celebrations where one of the uncles drinks too much and tells family secrets – just move into the kitchen and drink some punch and avoid the whole deal.

But that pungency is something we should look at because a) it’s what makes cooked cabbage(and it’s cousins) have an odor that some people do not care for and b) it’s what makes members of the cabbage family good for us. There is no one out there that can’t benefit from a dose of the member of the cabbage family because the chemical compounds that cause that odor are those “containing sulfur (dithiolthiones and isothiocyanates) [and have been] found to increase the activity of enzymes involved in detoxifying some carcinogens. In addition, a compound called indol-3-carbinol was found to affect estrogen metabolism and is thought to be protective against estrogen-related cancers such as cancer of the breast and uterus. Other beneficial substances found in cruciferous vegetables include fiber and the antioxidants vitamin C and beta carotene.”


There is not a cuisine out there that has not tackled cabbage in its various forms, but those countries in northern Europe have given us some of the most interesting, from soup (Schav in Russia), stuffed cabbage (so many different types and names that the list would take up the rest of this piece – just do a recipe search on ‘stuffed cabbage’ – in my family, the tradition is to make the sauce sweet and sour by using vinegar and raisins), cole slaw (kohl comes from the German word for cabbage), various forms of pickled cabbage(sauerkraut et al.) and so on.

One of the reasons there are so many uses that cabbage and its cousins have been put to from Northern Europe and ‘the empire formerly known as the Soviet Union’ is one of the cabbage family’s greatest gifts to farmers, especially in zones colder than Zone 5. Cabbage family members are extremely hardy. I have Brussels sprouts plants, with sprouts still on them (not very edible now, but the deer and bunnies have had a field day with them this winter). I’ve dug kale out of the snow in January many a time. So, if you garden in areas where early and late frosts are a risk, anyone from the cabbage family will be your friend.

chinese cabbage
Starting seeds from this group is ‘easy-peasy’ too, since, unlike tomatoes, etc., they don’t need a lot of bottom heat and once they come up, just give them some light. All the seeds come up looking pretty much the same, with a four-leaf clover sort of shape, but they rapidly turn into something that looks more like something you’d like to eat.

Also, since they are not so fussy, you can get them in the ground pretty early as long as you have open ground (no snow), it’s not frozen, and you put some plastic out so that the sun will warm things up. If you put them in, keep them under plastic or a heavy row cover until nights are no longer freezing. Then you can open them up, though we keep them under row covers to protect against those beautiful little white butterflies that come in the spring…they lay green eggs, which turn into cabbage worms, which Aunt Toby has developed a fairly murderous feeling for. Row covers is the way to go – the butterflies can’t get to the plants..and you don’t get worms that eat holes in your broccoli. Wa-la. At Chez Siberia on the Susquehanna, we’ve used everything from high tech Remay™ to old nylon sheer curtains with good results.

Now, Aunt Toby has been accused (with some basis, I admit) of offering too many cheap and good dishes that are white, which is anathema to people who….are anti-white food dieters. Today, I will win their hearts by returning to a dish I mentioned before: stuffed cabbage. Think of it as ravioli…only without the white stuff. Think of it as meatballs and spaghetti…only without the white stuff. The list is just endless. Just look for a recipe with a meat/onions filling rather than one that uses a binder like potatoes or rice. There. No white food.

For those readers who are sighing and rolling their eyes (Aunt Toby can hear those eyes rolling – I’ve had three teenagers – I can hear eyes hit the top of the sockets at 20 paces) about the upfront work in stuffed cabbage, here are two secrets: You can freeze stuffed cabbage (yay!) and here’s the way to do the upfront ‘softening up the cabbage leaves’ with little fuss and bother:

Put on a big kettle of water to boil.
Take the biggest pot you have: Dutch Oven, turkey roaster, whatever is big and deep enough to get the whole head of cabbage in. Take your cabbage and turn it over – see where they trimmed off the stem? You are now going to commit ‘cabbage murder’ (cue music from the shower scene in “Psycho”).

Take a sharp knife with a blade at least 5” long (a long paring knife will do; a standard paring knife is really too short and you’ll have to do the Anthony Perkins thing too many times – let’s have some pity for poor Janet Cabbage here).

Stab (this is a head of cabbage after all)the knife into the cabbage at one edge of that trimmed off stem and sawing up and down (this is getting gruesome, I admit – just swallow down and keep going), go around that trimmed off stem the whole way and lift out the core. If it does not come out easily, put the knife in again, at an angle and slice a bit at the inside – it will then come out.

Put the head of cabbage in the big pot with this trimmed off part facing up. When your water boils, pour that into the pot with the cabbage and cover. Let sit until cool. The cabbage leaves will then a) come off the head easily and b) will be partially cooked, so you’ll be able to put filling into them and roll them up.
Have a ball!!
This post is also cross posted at: Oxdown Gazette

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