On this the traditional day for serving Irish meals, what more appropriate vegetable to ponder than the ordinary cabbage -- long considered a cure for hangovers. A little-known superstition decrees that whoever eats cabbage while drinking will not become inebriated, because the grapevine does not grow where the cabbage plant lives.
Another superstition tells us that cabbage is a good-luck food. Stuffed with meat and vegetables, then baked, the wrapped cabbage is a symbolic dish of plenty.
Whether its powers are real or imagined, the cabbage is considered the oldest above-ground vegetable. It was eaten in prehistoric times, when man was still dining on wild plants and herbs. And as far back as the second century, bean curd eaten with Chinese cabbage was as basic to Chinese home cooking as pasta and olive oil is today to Italian.
By the fifth century, in Central Europe, a fine winter's meal would include a stew made from salt pork and stewed winter cabbage, kale or onion, simmered in a heavy stockpot over an open fire.
Americans have inherited a melting pot of cabbage cuisine. From the Dutch we have coleslaw, from the Germans, sauerkraut; stuffed cabbage and cabbage soup were brought by the Poles, Russians and Hungarians. Braised red cabbage with apples or chestnuts is particularly popular in Pennsylvania Dutch and Alsatian cooking, and it is a traditional complement to Scandinavian food.
Cabbage is as varied in its uses as it is in its family. Cabbage cousins include kale, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. Curly leafed Savoy cabbage, brought into France in 1533 by Catherine de Medici's chef, is best for stuffing and perfect for centerpieces.
Because of its ethnic significance or its homey taste, I have found that peple love to be served cabbage at parties. If it is cooked ahead of time, no aromas linger in your kitchen. And, what is more, cabbage is cheap.
Whether or not you are superstitious, this delicious, good- luck Hungarian stuffed cabbage strudel is guaranteed to delight your guests and may even cure your St. Patrick's Day hangover. HUNGARIAN CABBAGE STRUDEL Serves 8 to 12 as an hors d'oeuvre or vegetable 1 head (2 pounds) green or Savoy 2 teaspoons salt 4 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped Freshly ground pepper to taste 1 teaspoon caraway seeds 1 tablespoon sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon 8 phyllo leaves 6 tablespoons butter, melted 1/2 cup fine bread crumbsd 1 egg white
Remove the core from the cabbage and shred, using a food processor or grater. Sprinkle with the salt and let stand about 15 minutes. Squeeze out the excess water.
Place the oil in a heavy frying pan, and brown the onion until golden. Remove, and saut,e the cabbage (you will probably have to do this in two batches), cooking carefully until wilted.
Combine cabbage and onions. Sprinkle with pepper, caraway seeds, sugar and cinnamon. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Cover a pastry board with a cloth. Taking one phyllo leaf at a time, lay it on the board and brush with the melted butter, one tablespoon of the crumbs and pepper. Lay the next phyllo leaf on top and brush with the same combination. Continue until you have four layers of phyllo leaves and topping.
Along the longer side of the phyllo, spoon half the cabbage filling about 4 inches from the edges of the dough. Fold the edge over the cabbage. Then, using both hands, lift the cloth and let the cabbage roll fall over and over itself, jelly-roll fashion, until the filling is completely enclosed in the pastry sheet. Place, seam side down, in a greased jelly-roll pan. If the roll is too long, cut it with a serrated knife to fit. Repeat this process with the remaining four phyllo leaves, bread crumbs, pepper and cabbage.
Brush the tops of the rolls with additional melted butter. Then brush with the egg white, which has been lightly beaten.
Bake 45 minutes in a 350- degree oven or until golden. Slice thin and serve immediately. Or serve lukewarm, sprinkled with confectioners' sugar, as a dessert.