About Cabbage

April 15, 2007

About Cabbage

The cabbage (Brassica oleracea Capitata Group) is derived from a leafy wild mustard plant, native to the Mediterranean region. It was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans; Cato the Elder praised this vegetable for its medicinal properties, declaring that “it is first of all the vegetables.”

The only part of the plant that is normally eaten is the leafy head; more precisely, the spherical cluster of immature leaves, excluding the partially unfolded outer leaves. The so-called ‘cabbage head’ is widely consumed — raw, cooked, or preserved — in a great variety of dishes, and is thus a leaf vegetable.

While raw cabbage can be eaten in hand, for most uses it is sliced into thin strips or shredded into salads or chopped, as in coleslaw.

Cabbage is often prepared by boiling, usually as part of soups or stews such as the Central Europe and Eastern European borscht. Boiling tenderizes the leaves, and releases sugars, and develops a characteristic “cabbage” aroma. Indeed, boiled cabbage seems to have fallen out of favor in North America, possibly due to the strong smell released during the cooking, or to its reputation for promoting flatulence.

Fermented and preserved
Cabbage is often consumed as the German sauerkraut and Korean kimchi. Finely sliced cabbage is mixed with salt and undergoes lactic acid fermentation. Sauerkraut was historically prepared at home, as a way of storing food for the winter.

Cabbage is known to have been used in European folk medicine to treat acute inflammation. A paste of raw cabbage may be placed in a cabbage leaf and wrapped around the affected area to reduce discomfort. It may also be effective in the relief of painfully engorged breasts in breastfeeding women.

Like Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and other cruciferous vegetables, which are characterized by thick, water-storing stalks and leaves, cabbage is high on the list of anti-cancer foods. Along with vitamin C, it contains significant amounts of nitrogen compounds known as indoles, as well as fiber—both of which appear to lower the risk of various forms of cancer. Some studies have found a lower incidence of colon and rectal cancer in people who frequently eat cabbage.

Cabbage keeps well—and retains its vitamin C—if kept cold. Place the whole head of cabbage in a perforated plastic bag and store it in the refrigerator crisper. An uncut head will keep for at least two weeks (except the Savoy variety). Once a head of cabbage is cut, cover the cut surface tightly with plastic wrap and use the remainder within a day or two. Rubbing the cut surface with lemon juice will prevent it from discoloring.

Don’t wash cabbage until you are ready to use it. The interior of a tight head of cabbage is nearly always clean, but if you want to rinse it, do so after cutting and chopping the vegetable. Avoid slicing or shredding cabbage in advance, which causes a loss of vitamin C. Use a stainless steel (not carbon steel) knife when cutting cabbage; the vegetable’s juices react with carbon steel and will turn the cut edges of green cabbage black, and red cabbage blue. To further preserve its bright color, red cabbage should also be cooked in a nonreactive vessel—not an aluminum or cast-iron pot.

The pungent smell for which cabbage is notorious is caused by sulfur compounds released when the vegetable is heated. Cooking cabbage quickly, in a large quantity of liquid, in a uncovered pot, will minimize this problem. Dropping a whole, unshelled walnut or a slice of bread into the pot may also reduce the odor. Another advantage to cooking cabbage as briefly as possible in an uncovered pot is that it will prevent the leaves from discoloring. Also, to conserve the high vitamin C content, add the cabbage to water that’s already boiling. Once it’s cooked, save the water to use in stock or soup.

Any type of cabbage can be braised in stock, apple juice, cider, or wine. Thinly sliced onions will enhance the flavor. Place the shredded cabbage and just enough liquid to cover it in a pan, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until tender. Braising red cabbage with acid ingredients helps to preserve its color; a classic dish cooked this way is sweet-and-sour red cabbage. Use lemon juice or wine vinegar (about 1 tablespoon per cup of cooking liquid), or braise the cabbage in red wine or cider. Cook sliced apples and onions with the cabbage, and balance the sourness with brown sugar or honey and nutmeg.

This method is the best way to preserve the nutrients, color, and crisp-tender texture of cabbage. If cabbage is steamed with no added water—that is, cooked in the vegetable’s own moisture—it will retain 68 percent of the vitamin C content, compared to 44 percent when it is cooked in water to cover.

Sliced or shredded cabbage can stir-fried on its own, combined with bell peppers, onions, radishes, or any other vegetable, depending on the dish.


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