In Season

Cabbage, Right Under Your Nose

By Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

I 've had just about enough of winter, especially in the kitchen, but an uncomfortable number of weeks stand between me and tender baby greens, sweet young peas and the first ears of corn.

During the long spring thaw, I have to unearth some new inspiration in the produce section. And I find it in cabbage -- a vegetable I've too often ignored.

Talk about an image problem. Look around the supermarket: Tall asparagus spears, crisp green beans and plump heads of broccoli take their turns in the spotlight, whereas cabbage might get trotted out alongside a display of coleslaw ingredients during barbecue season.

Come St. Patrick's Day, cabbage gets another nod as best supporting vegetable, the go-to side dish for corned beef. Boiled cabbage may have its fans, but frankly it neither makes a sexy presentation nor incites wistful descriptions any more than those weak cabbage soups made in bleak Russian novels.

Boiling cabbage is infamous for its pungent odor. I recently took my cabbage and white bean shepherd's pie to an Irish-American friend. She loved the pie but asked, "How'd you get rid of the smell of the cabbage in the house?" I told her that only happens when you boil cabbage for hours. (Mine is sauteed for 15 minutes.)

Cabbage does boast a long culinary history. Most accounts have it making its way to Europe with the Celtic invasion that preceded the Romans, and it's among the vegetables that American colonists cultivated. Cabbage has also been used for medicinal purposes, but its epicurean diversity is unmatched.

Among the most renowned cabbage dishes is Korea's kimchi, a spicy-hot fermented condiment as famous for its particularly strong odor as for its taste. Germany's sauerkraut has its fans and detractors. The French class up sauerkraut a bit in their choucroute, cooking the cabbage with juniper berries and wine, but it's really the sausages and smoked meats that draw raves. Which brings me to a dish you either love or hate: stuffed cabbage. Boiled leaves are stuffed with a ground-meat mixture and then cooked with a tomato sauce. It's not high on my list of what to make for dinner.

Cabbage deserves better PR. Cooked long and slow with onions in a bath of butter, it's stupendous. Need it fast and flavorful? Stir-fry thinly sliced cabbage with some ginger and apples, and you have a side dish that can also serve as a condiment to roast fish, chicken and pork. Once you get the hang of that, add other ingredients. For me, cabbage has a natural affinity with fruit: Dried fruit, oranges, apples and pears all can add a touch of sweetness that brightens the flavor. Ginger, cloves, allspice and sesame are easy partners.

There's no need to stop at side dishes. I like to add sauteed cabbage to fillings for savory pastries, potpies and shepherd's pie. The cabbage, stir-fried until just tender, is right on the edge of creamy when cooked again in a dough or main-course pie. Don't let the poor-man's cabbage soup (or the famed dieter's version) turn you off to that concept, either. Add cooked cabbage to a soup right before serving, and you'll be surprised at what a nice addition it makes. Try it in minestrone, bean and vegetable soups and broth-based chowders.

Perhaps we overlook cabbage because it's always around. But this time of year especially, that is one of its most appealing qualities. You'll usually find a good selection of green, purple and savoy cabbages in most supermarkets. The savoy is milder in flavor than the green, and I find it cooks a little faster. Purple is nice in a salad, but the color dulls with cooking and the juices stain whatever they touch. Then there's the whole world of Chinese cabbage -- but that's another column.

Good-quality cabbages, with firm heads, nice color and no bruising, are easy to find. While the price of asparagus soars, cabbage's price remains low and steady. Brussels sprouts, those miniature cabbages, look great in December, but the quality and supply vary more the further from Christmas you get. Green beans are great once they come in from the local farms, but transported midwinter beans are disappointingly tough. Even the ever-reliable broccoli, a cruciferous relative, is subject to the whims of the California weather.

Not cabbage. And the same hardiness that keeps cabbage looking good in the bins also translates to my refrigerator, where a nice head can sit for a week or two without suffering -- while the lettuce wilts and the zucchini turns to mush. For someone whose good intentions at the market aren't always borne out once I get home, that's a godsend.

Which brings me to the most important attribute of all: the wow factor. Nobody expects a terrific cabbage dish, so a cook's fine hand will be apparent when the lowly offering becomes something delicious. Serve beautiful spears of steamed asparagus, and everyone praises the vegetable. Serve a wonderful stir-fried cabbage dish, though, and everyone will praise you.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick, a former Food section recipe editor, can be reached "In Season" column replaces "Entertaining" and will appear in Food on the first Wednesday of each month.

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