What is a cabbage? Just like politics, the cabbage world is full of misinformation; truth is scarce!
“…our tables were an international showcase of joyless, grey, overcooked, poorly prepared and artlessly presented dreck. Even tourist from America, inventors of the iceberg lettuce and jello salad, would return home with tales of the ghastliness of British cooking…”Tim Hayward, The Financial Times, November 2021
Until the recent triumphant emergence of ‘Modern British’, for most of the twentieth century, British food was the laughing stock of the culinary world. As Tim Hayward describes above, even the Americans were scornful. And this sorry state of affairs was achieved, almost single-handedly, by the cabbage. Or rather, by its handlers. Cabbage was notorious as the principal cause of the grimness of prisons, hospitals, schools, care homes to say nothing of boarding houses and Fawlty-Tower-type hotels. Its joyless and grey all-pervading and unremitting stink hit the unsuspecting visitor like a wall.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and these days cabbages of all types are enjoying a late renaissance. Especially in winter.
While all the lush choice of vegetables we enjoy in the summer still lurks underground, courageous cabbages are now in season…some of them have been with us now for some time. So I thought I would take this opportunity to shine a light on this hugely underrated vegetable.
What exactly is a cabbage anyway?
It’s a member of the Brassica Olearacea family of plants
The cabbage is a member of the Brassica Olearacea family, and is therefore related to other vegetables such as collard greens and kale (including cavolo nero which is a kale cultivar) – the Acephala group; broccoli and Chinese kale – the Alboglabra group; sprouting broccoli – the Italica group; Brussels sprouts – the Gemmifera group; kohlrabi – the Gongylodes group; and cauliflowers, romanesco and broccoflower – the Botritis group.
Specifically, unless it’s a Savoy cabbage, it’s a Brassica Olearacea Capitata
What we generally know as cabbages – round, red, white and green – belong to the Capitata group of cultivars of this large and burgeoning botanical family of Brassica Olearacea. There are many different varieties of cabbage grown worldwide, from round to conical in shape; with flat or curly, tight, or loose leaves. But in Latin (which is where this name comes from) ‘capitata’ means ‘having a head’; so what all these cabbages all have in common – and what distinguishes them, for example, from kale, or kohlrabi, is that they all have a head.
It’s all a matter of timing when it comes to cabbages
The important aspect of cabbages is the time when they are due to be harvested. Hearty emerald green ones are harvested over the summer months. When intended for eating over winter you will find iceberg white (as well as Christmassy red) ones. In the spring you will find loose-leafed pointy ones. And all year round you will find the sumptuous Sweetheart (also known as Hispi) cabbage which conveniently fills in the gaps – between spring and summer, for example.
- Green round ‘summer’ cabbages (including ‘ballhead’ and ’roundhead’) are sown late-Feb->May and harvested July -> October depending upon the variety.
- ‘White’, is strictly speaking a type of green cabbage, grown to be eaten in the winter months. It has smooth, pale green leaves, and has been specifically bred to be good in sauerkraut, and it is also particularly good in coleslaw, as it can withstand even creamy, heavy sauces.White cabbage are sown in March and harvested September/October for over winter storage. They taste great in December!
- Red – (aka purple cabbage or blue kraut). Red cabbage (like ‘white’ cabbage) is harvested in autumn, but it stores well so it’s available throughout the winter. It has smooth red leaves and is often used for pickling or stewing. This is mainly because of the vibrant red colour, which is deepened by the pickling process. The colour changes according to the soil it’s grown in – turning red in acid soils, blue in neutral soils, and a greeny yellow in alkaline soils.
Cabbage is a very healthy vegetable, packed with vitamins B, C and K, as well as calcium and plenty of other essential nutrients, including soluble and insoluble fibre; red cabbage has about double the amount of vitamin C as green cabbage.
What about spring cabbage?
Spring cabbages are usually sown in August, and then planted out in September and October to slowly grow over the winter and be harvested from late February through to the beginning of June. Spring or pointed cabbage are more conical in shape; they’re looser, but they ‘heart’ up.
They should not be confused with spring greens (also known as collard greens) which are from the Acephala part of the Brassica Olearacea family (rather than the Capitata) and which don’t have much of a head…or a very loose head.
So what about Savoy cabbage?
Well – a Savoy cabbage is not a ‘capitata’, so strictly speaking it’s a different group of cultivars of the Brassica Olearacea family, all of its own. The Savoy cabbage is a Brassica Olearacea var Sabauda. But whatever it is technically, it’s delicious – mild and nutty with very textured leaves. There is also a spectacular hybrid variant which is a mix between Savoy cabbage and a winter ‘white’ cabbage – the January King cabbage.
The Savoy cabbage is particularly good in February.
What exactly is NOT a cabbage?
What is definitely NOT a cabbage are a number of vegetables in the Brassica Rapa, totally different, side of the brassica family which often, confusingly, contain ‘cabbage’ in their name. These include:
- Chinese cabbage, also known as Chinese leaf, or Napa cabbage
- Pak Choi, or Bok Choi
- Tatsoi, sometimes known as ‘Chinese flat cabbage’
- Rapini, or broccoli rabe (in Italian Cima di Rapa)
Why do cabbages have such a bad reputation?
There are so many different ways to prepare this vegetable – they can be pickled, fermented (such as for sauerkraut), steamed, stewed, sautéed, braised, or eaten raw. But they are commonly associated with being boiled, which, if done for too long, leaves a horrible smell. This rotten egg smell comes from hydrogen sulphide, a gas that is released when cabbage is overcooked.
However, if cabbage isn’t boiled to death, it can be a versatile vegetable that goes with a lot of different dishes. Far better to dry fry for eight minutes or so.
What do chefs suggest?
- Josh Eggleton of the Pony and Trap in Chew Magna has a recipe for pickling red cabbage so that it can be used as a crunchy and colourful addition to everything from hot roasts to cold meats, and from sandwiches to salads.
- There’s a fantastic recipe for chou farci (also known as stuffed cabbage) by Pascal Aussignac. Cooking the cabbage in a snug-fitting pan will help it hold together, although Pascal also suggests using a piece of caul fat (similar to sausage casing) to wrap the cabbage.
- This grilled salad from Simon Rogan is cooked on a barbecue and smoked with cherry wood chips, and accompanied with frothy Isle of Mull Cheddar sauce, truffle custard and a chilli herb oil.
- Okonomiyaki – ever heard of it? Kate Doran has a recipe for these Japanese fritters that is filled with sweet potato, cabbage and toasted sesame. It’s a very versatile dish!
Saucy Dressings recipes:
There are many recipes on Saucy Dressings that make use of cabbages. These include:
- Right Royal Creamy Cabbage – inspired by Eating Royally, a recipe book written by Darren McGrady (former chef to the royals), this recipe combines Savoy cabbage, double cream, and parmesan to create a delectable side-dish
- Cabbage, vermouth and banana shallot melee – this technique for cooking cabbage is remarkably good; it’s all due to the daring largeness of the pieces of caramelised shallot, and heady scent of the cumin, and the dryness of the vermouth.
- Christmas red cabbage – this is a very Christmasy version of red cabbage using mulled wine, cinnamon, cranberry jelly and star anise. You may be tempted to make double quantities of this as it keeps well in the fridge for a couple of weeks, and it heats up well.
- Red cabbage with a marmalade glaze – The secret twist to this recipe is the marmalade, which glazes the cabbage. Add in a bit of balsamic vinegar, and you’ve got yourself a quick and delicious veg.
- Stir-fried cabbage with raisins and pine nuts – this quick stir-fry is simple but very tasty. The mixture of walnut oil, duck fat and Belazu balsamic vinegar pairs with the cabbage beautifully.
What does cabbage pair with?
There are some interesting ways to pair cabbage with different flavours. According to The Flavor Matrix by James Briscione, Brassica Oleracea (which includes cabbages, brussels sprouts and kale) pairs well with flavours of toasted nuts, cheese, mushrooms, grains and anchovies. Surprisingly, they also pair with coconut, coriander and aubergine.
So, the next time that you’re looking to make a new dish, why not try out cabbage?