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   Giving Cabbage the
   Royal Treatment

   By Kay Rentschler

  Nothing says winter vegetable like a head of cabbage. I see one just now, heading into a steam bath with a sack of potatoes and a side of pork. Of course, winter has no exclusive rights to cabbage, which finds itself scraped raw on a box grater in July. There is, however, something in a cabbage's gravity, the inscrutability of its smooth, round face, and the jealous grip it keeps on its inner leaves that tells the cook to chop, steam and soften.

  Cuisines that have adopted the cabbage as their own — Russian, Polish and Hungarian in particular (the Germans and Austrians got partial custody) — agree. They bundle up cabbage and get it good and warm, then stuff it, use it to stuff other things, stew it, sauté it, salt it and simmer it some more. The silky richness and sweet pungency that result explain why winter and cabbage arrive together in the same frosted breath.

  It is not surprising that head cabbage (green, red and Savoy), the stoutest and most stalwart of the wild cabbage family, stayed up north, while some of its sexier relatives, like lacinato (black kale) and broccoli rabe, headed south to drizzle olive oil on their leaves.

  Green and red cabbages weather temperatures between cool and downright cold — 20 degrees will not faze them — and can step up to the heat as well. The crinkly, smiling Savoy cabbage, on the other hand, is more tender and sweet in character than its counterparts and frilly enough to shiver. As such, Savoy cabbage has made its culinary home in moderate European climates like those of England and France.

  Cabbage has enjoyed fame and perfidy. The ancient Romans celebrated its blood-cleansing properties, particularly in the context of hangovers. Today, doctors tell us to tank up on cabbage for its antioxidant and potentially anti-cancer benefits. But throughout much of history, cabbage has suffered marketing problems. Considered a poor man's food, it was deemed unworthy of preparation by Europe's great chefs (Lewis Carroll's fanciful "cabbages and kings" speech conveyed the incongruity of the two words in a single phrase), and to this day carries a whiff of poverty about it.

  Unfortunately, that is not the only whiff we get from cabbage, especially boiled cabbage, whose sulfuric compounds sneak through cracks and keyholes to hang poisonously in the hall. The best solution to cabbage odor is simple: don't overcook it. Some of the very compounds that make cabbage healthful and tasty (called glucosinolates) turn ugly when they leach from the vegetable, into its cooking liquid and off into space. Proper cooking also assures that nutrients stay where they are supposed to — in the cabbage, not in the cooking liquid.

  Consumption of cabbage is thought to occasion bloating, which can lead to social embarrassment. How nice for everyone that caraway seed, a medieval answer to those ills, pulls a double shift as antidote and aromatic.

  No cabbage deserves to be boiled, a Hungarian chef once told me. Indeed, a gentle braise, brief simmer or leisurely sauté pays off handsomely when cooking cabbage, which will smell and taste sweet for your troubles. Red cabbage is higher in fiber and takes longer to cook than green.

  Cabbage is still dirt cheap, but squeaky clean. No garden grit enters its inner sphere, so it is core, chop and go for the cook.

  Having considered one head much like the next, I was surprised to find that green and red cabbage come with dozens of proper names. Given the abundance of carefully cultivated cabbage types, I wondered if consumers could be trained to recognize differences among them. Unfortunately, said Dr. Matt Kleinhenz, an Ohio State University horticulturist and cabbage enthusiast, our options are not as abundant as they might seem.

  Most cabbage varieties, he said, are developed with mass marketing in mind (for sauerkraut, coleslaw and the like); those sold loose in stores are considered all-purpose and bear no labels at all. Growers have worked to make all cabbage mild and unassertive — vanilla, in effect, he said.

  So, assuming that vanilla is what you want, what should you look for when buying cabbage? Taut, glistening leaves free of little holes or discoloration, and bowling ball density in the hand. And color? Red cabbage is consistently colored throughout. Green cabbage, however, becomes progressively paler toward the center, Dr. Kleinhenz said. Heads with a minimal green in their outer leaves have been heavily trimmed, suggesting they may be old or that there were problems on the farm, in storage or in transit. Short answer: go for the green.

  Here we are then, an ice rink of winter before us. There is plenty of time for a few plates of cabbage. The fusty king? Forget him. The head that rolls may be his own.

  • Recipe: Cabbage and Potato Gratin With Mustard Bread Crumbs
  • Recipe: Cabbage and Sparerib Soup

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