I got a desperate phone message from my niece Nadine recently, “My CSA box is full of cabbage, and I don’t know what to do with it. Quick, send me some recipes!”
Cabbage is a humble vegetable, often in the background and overlooked–you don’t often hear cooks raving about their cabbage the way they swoon over heirloom tomatoes. But cabbages are as intriguing to me as tomato varieties are to some other gardeners. The most beautiful cabbage I ever saw–a Savoy cabbage in all its crinkled blue-green glory–was growing in the mist above the Pacific Ocean in the garden at Green Gulch in Marin County, CA, some time around 1972. It was love at first sight.
I also remember the most delicious cabbage I ever ate (or perhaps it was the most welcome…). We ate in a small town in Yugoslavia in 1971, and cabbage was the only vegetable in town. But what a cabbage! Its sweet, spicy flavor was enhanced only by salt, black pepper, and the freshly pressed local green olive oil. A revelation.
When we moved to Madison County in the mountains of North Carolina, I was introduced to our neighbors’ cabbage of choice, Early Jersey Wakefield–a pointy headed, sweet early cabbage. Shortly afterward, a friend who had been traveling in Japan brought me a box full of seed packages. The labels were all in Japanese, but I could tell they were Brassica seeds, and soon the garden was full of cabbages and mustard plants of all shapes and sizes.
I still grow Jersey Wakefield for an early crop, as well as a Savoy (“Deadon” is a current favorite), a red called “Ruby Perfection”, and “Stonehead” for fall harvest. The Asian varieties of Brassica rapa–both heading and non-heading types of Chinese cabbage– have proved extremely hardy and become the backbone of my winter salad garden. The heading varieties like “Blues” and “Optiko” are perfectly happy living under row covers in the garden until deep cold arrives. They also store well for weeks in the refrigerator or root cellar. The open-headed types like “Fun Jen” and “Tokyo Bekana” often make it through the whole winter with protection, regrowing from multiple cuttings. Their tender ruffled leaves and juicy white stalks are perfect for salads and quick stir-fries.
So…what to do with all this cabbage? The various types of cabbage have very different qualities, and those qualities change with the cooking method, as well. If you want the spicy, crunchy quality of cabbage to shine, eat it raw as salad or add to other dishes at the end of cooking. For mellower flavor, make a stir-fry or warm salad. To bring out the sweet nature of cabbage, try a slow braising or caramelizing with onions. Cabbage isn’t flashy, but it’s a star of the fall garden.
Cabbage and Carrot Stir-fry with Indian Spices
This recipe makes a generous amount, but it can be used many ways. Serve it hot as part of a rice meal; have it cool for a lunch salad; wrap it up in a corn or flour tortilla with beans or shredded pork or chicken.
Ingredients: 1 Tbs whole cumin seed, 1 tsp whole coriander seed, 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, 2 Tbs canola or grapeseed oil, 1 finely chopped jalapeno, 1 small green cabbage (about 1 1/2 lb.), 2 or 3 carrots, 2/3 cup chopped coriander leaves (cilantro), 3 Tbs fresh lime juice
Cut the cabbage in quarters, remove the core, and slice thinly to make about 6 cups. Peel and cut the carrots into thin matchsticks. Toss the sliced cabbage and carrots with 1 tsp kosher salt in a large bowl. Set aside.
Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Toast 1 tsp cumin seed, stirring frequently, until deep brown and fragrant. Transfer to a spice grinder or mortar, cool, and grind to a powder. Set aside. Grind the coriander and peppercorns coarsely.
Warm the oil with 2 tsp whole cumin seed, the coriander seed, and black pepper in a large skillet or wok over medium high heat. Cook 1 or 2 minutes, until the cumin seed is browned and popping. Add the chopped jalapeno and stir 30 to 60 seconds. Add the cabbage and carrots and toss to mix with the seasonings. Cook, stirring occasionally, 3 to 5 minutes, until the cabbage is softened. Stir in the ground cumin, and additional salt, if needed. Cook 30 to 60 seconds longer. Transfer to a serving bowl and stir in the coriander leaves and lime juice.
Spicy Napa Cabbage with Sesame Seeds
This is a great salad on its own, but it’s also a perfect addition to an Asian burrito or Thai rice noodle salad. Wrap it up in a flour tortilla with stir-fried pork or chicken…tofu and mushrooms…or toss it with pile of boiled rice noodles or mung bean vermicelli..
Ingredients: 1 small Napa cabbage (about 6 cups chopped), 1 large carrot (about 1 cup grated), 1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves, 1/4 cup finely chopped scallions, 1 Tbs oil (grapeseed, peanut, canola), 2 Tbs toasted sesame oil, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes (or 1or 2 minced small hot chiles), 1 Tbs minced ginger, 1 finely chopped shallot, 1/2 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, 2 Tbs rice vinegar, 2 Tbs soy sauce, 1 Tbs mirin (sweet rice wine), and 1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
Cut the cabbage in quarters and slice thinly crosswise to make about 6 cups. Peel and shred the carrots. Put the cabbage and carrots in a large bowl with the coriander leaves and scallions.
Make the dressing: In a small skillet, dry roast the Sichuan peppercorns 2 or 3 minutes, until fragrant. Transfer to a spice grinder or mortar, cool, and grind to a powder. Use the same skillet to warm the two oils with the red chile and ginger over medium heat, until small bubbles rise around the ginger. Turn off the heat. Add the scallions and ground Sichuan pepper; stir 1 minute. Stir in the soy sauce, mirin, and rice vinegar. Taste the dressing and adjust the seasoning…add a bit of Asian chile sauce for more heat.
Pour the warm dressing over the salad and toss. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Add some zip with a squeeze of fresh lime juice.
Warm Red Cabbage Salad
Here is a delicious fall salad –lightly cooked cabbage tossed with slivers of apple, toasted walnuts, and a hint of sweet spice. Add some Gorgonzola or crumbled bacon, if you are so inclined.
Ingredients: 1 small red cabbage (1 pound or so), 1medium-small red onion, 1 large crisp apple, 2 Tbs olive oil, 1 tsp sweet spice or 5-spice, 1/2 cup walnut pieces, 2 tsp walnut oil, 2 Tbs balsamic vinegar, salt and black pepper, 2 Tbs chopped fresh parsley or mint.
Sweet Spice Mixture: 2 tsp ground coriander, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp allspice, 1 tsp ginger, 1/8 tsp cardamom or nutmeg, pinch cloves. Or, substitute Chinese 5-spice (star anise, Sichuan pepper, fennel, clove, and cinnamon).
Toast the walnuts 5 to 7 minutes in an oven heated to 350 degrees F. Set aside to cool.
Cut the cabbage in quarters and remove the tough inner core. Cut the wedges into thin slices. Quarter the onion and cut lengthwise into thin slivers. Cut the apple into wedges, then into thin slices.
Warm the olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Stir in the onion and sauté 1 minute. Add the cabbage and sprinkle with a pinch or two salt. Cook, stirring often, 2 minutes, until the cabbage softens but retains some crunch. Stir in the spice and vinegar. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Transfer to a serving bowl, toss with the walnuts and herbs, and drizzle with walnut oil.
Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage
Take the ingredients for Warm Red Cabbage Salad, add some red wine and some cooking time, and you have a braise full of wonderful deep red flavor. Leftovers are delicious, so you may want to double the amount of cabbage and onions.
Cook the onions in the olive oil with a pinch of salt and 2 slices chopped smoked bacon (optional) until softened and slightly golden, 7 to 10 minutes. Add 2 cloves slivered garlic, the sliced cabbage, and apple. Stir well to combine and cook over medium heat about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup dry red wine (3/4 cup if you are cooking 2 lbs cabbage) and 1 tsp salt; bring to a simmer. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low, and gently simmer 35 to 45 minutes. Stir in 1 tsp spice mixture, if desired, and cook another 5 minutes. Season with balsamic vinegar, salt, and black pepper to taste.
Top with toasted walnuts and a sprinkling of chopped green herbs.
Eat your braised cabbage with roast chicken or turkey, lentil and wild rice salad, or roasted vegetables like parsnip, carrot, and fennel. It’s also great mixed with wedges of roasted beets, or added to borscht.
Chung Hua’s Stir-fried Pork and Cabbage
My sister’s husband Chung Hua made this dish for me as part of a memorable feast, and I’ve been making my version ever since. Prepare all the ingredients and set them out in small bowls. After all the chopping, it is ready very quickly.
Ingredients for the pork: 1/2 lb boneless pork chop or other lean pork, 1/4 tsp kosher salt, 1 Tbs soy sauce, 1 Tbs sake or Chinese rice wine, 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp cornstarch
Slice the pork across the grain into 1/4-inch strips. Sprinkle with salt. Whisk together the remaining ingredients and toss with the pork. Cover and refrigerate 1 to 4 hours
Stir-fry ingredients: Vegetable oil, 2 Tbs minced ginger, 2 Tbs minced garlic, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, 5 to 6 cups thinly sliced green cabbage (toss with 1/2 tsp kosher salt), 2 thinly sliced medium hot green chiles (or substitute bell pepper), 1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions or green onion
Sauce: Whisk together 1 Tbs soy sauce, 1 Tbs rice wine, and 2 tsp toasted sesame oil.
Heat 1 1/2 Tbs oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering hot, put the pork into the pan in a single layer. Stir-fry about 2 minutes, until the pieces have lost their pinkness. Transfer to a warm plate and cover with foil. Heat about 2 tsp more oil in the pan. Stir-fry half the scallions, garlic, ginger, and chile flakes 20 to 30 seconds. Add the cabbage and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes, until the cabbage is wilted but still crunchy. Add the green pepper and cook 1 minute. Add the reserved pork and the sesame-soy sauce. Toss to combine.
Sprinkle the remaining scallions over the top and serve with hot rice.
Involtini Wrapped in Cabbage Leaves
Involtini are Italian meat rolls wrapped in thin slices of beef or pork, or in this case, cabbage leaves. I made these for Drew’s birthday feast with ground beef from our neighbor Rodney’s bull.
For the rolls: 1 lb ground beef (preferably lean grass-fed), 1/3 lb. lean ground pork), 1/3 lb ground chicken or turkey, 2 slices finely chopped bacon (or a bit of Rodney’s smoked sausage), 2 eggs, 1/2 cup bread crumbs, 1/4 cup grated Parmesan, 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley, 1/4 cup finely chopped onion, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Mix all the ingredients together and shape into log-shaped rolls.
The cabbage leaves: Use large outer cabbage leaves. Remove heavy ribs and steam or blanch the leaves a few minutes until wilted and flexible. Drain and cool.
Wrap the meat rolls in the cabbage leaves (place the roll crossways, fold in the sides of the leaf, and roll it up).
The Braise: I used 2 cups wild mushroom soup, 1/2 cup red wine, and 1 1/2 cups crushed tomatoes. If you don’t have any spare soup on hand, warm 2 Tbs olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat with 1 cup finely chopped onion, 1/2 cup finely chopped carrot, 1 finely chopped celery stalk, 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves and 2 bay leaves. Sauté a few minutes to soften the vegetables. Add 1/2 cup red wine, 2 cups broth, 1 1/2 cups tomato puree, and 1/2 tsp salt. Bring to a simmer.
Place the cabbage-wrapped rolls into the braising liquid, seam side down, in a single layer. Simmer gently for 1 1/4 hours.