Cabbage, The Unsung Hero
Happy November! We’ve moved past the post-summer autumnal excitement, and now are compelled to embrace and appreciate the mid-season temperatures before the cold of winter sets in. With the holiday season is fast approaching, we know it’s time to get those special menus in gear. With rising food costs and crop instability, there’s one type of produce we all know we can count on, no matter the temperature or season – cabbage!
Cabbage, in all of its varieties and possible preparations, is a bedrock of the culinary world. Look to any culture and every world cuisine, both historically and in the modern day – whether haute or humble – and you will find cabbage playing an important role… even if it is a supporting one.
How Has Cabbage Come to be Such a Culinary Staple?
Let’s start with the basics: cabbage is a crop that grows year-round. There are both winter and summer varietals with significant yields that provide sustained and substantive nutrition, but we’ll get to the health benefits of this cruciferous vegetable a little later.
Cabbage is not a finicky crop – it can withstand high heat and deep freezes, which means that no matter the farming difficulties of a particular season, it survives. It also has a long shelf-life, and is ideal for preserving – whether through pickling or fermentation, and can even be frozen.
A Cabbage for All
There are many varieties of cabbage, each with their own special merits, including the most well-known – and therefore, most popular varieties like Cannonball – or Green, Red – or Purple, Savoy, Napa, and Chinese Cabbage.
Cabbage – no matter the type – is part of the Brassica genus, and have some pretty famous relatives: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, bok choy, and brussels sprouts – to name a few.
Not all cabbage is created equal, though all are culinary stars in their own right. Some have flat leaves, other are curly or crinkled; some are round, others are oblong; some are green, some white, and others a gorgeous reddish-purple hue. Some cabbages are sweeter, some more savory, and others bitter; some are better for pickling and fermenting, some are better for cooking (braising, roasting, stewing, steaming, sauteing, etc), and others better for raw consumption, just as they are.
However, no matter the cabbage you choose to use, they are all incredibly good for you!
Cabbage on the World Stage
Since antiquity, you can find cabbage mentioned in ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian texts, and many others still. It is such an important crop, in fact, its origin is actually explained in Greek mythology!
According to the myth, an intense battle took place between Dionysus, the God of Wine, and Lycurgus, the Prince of Thrace, who destroyed all of the grapevines in the Dionysus’ garden. Upon seeing the damage to his precious garden, Dionysus flew into a rage and condemned Prince Lycurgus to be bound to a grapevine for the remainder of his years. The prince was devastated by his punishment and began to weep. As his tears fell the ground, they took root and became tiny cabbage plants.
While this was a creation myth of sorts, what transpired from it was a common belief that if you ate cabbage before drinking, you would avoid intoxication, because the tears of Lycurgus were the antithesis of Dionysus’ grapes. From this myth, many other beliefs regarding the health benefits of cabbage sprouted, such as a gender prediction test using red cabbage, or cold cabbage leaves were ideal for soothing post-natal mastitis. In the modern day, while we know those to be less than accurate, there are a tremendous number of real benefits gained by regularly incorporating cabbage into your diet!
Healthful Cabbage for a Healthy Life
Historically speaking, cabbage provided well-round nutritional benefits to populations all over the world during times of agricultural distress, when their other crops failed, and it’s easy to see why…
All varieties of cabbage are full of vitamins and nutrients, such as vitamins C and K (as well as A and B6), but red cabbage in particular is especially high in vitamin C, due to the presence of beta-carotene and other carotenoid antioxidants!
Speaking of antioxidants, cabbage is full of them, including polyphenols, which are the kind present in extra virgin olive oil, helping clear free-radicals from our systems.
Cabbage is also full of fiber – both soluble and insoluble – which means it’s excellent for digestion as well as lowering cholesterol. It has also been proven to reduce overall inflammation, abating many chronic illnesses caused by inflammation.
Cabbage is a ‘gut friendly’ vegetable that is particularly suited for fermentation; when consuming cabbage in a fermented form like Kimchi, there is an additive effect helping our respective gut biomes to flourish with healthy, good-for-you bacteria.
Before Cabbage Patch Kids were a Thing…
Like most families, cabbage dishes have always been a part of our story. I remember my papou (grandfather in Greek) always getting in ‘trouble’ with my yiayia (grandmother in Greek), because he would always try to sneak some of her Politiki Salata (a simple pickled cabbage slaw) before it finished pickling…He would always do it when she could see him sneaking into the vessel on our counter, and would laugh and smack him playfully with her wooden spoon to deter him.
My yiayia was a magician when it came to turning simple ingredients into delicious creations, with her Lachanodolmades me Avgolemono (stuffed cabbage with egg-lemon sauce) being so popular, all of our cousins would invite themselves to come for dinner when they heard she was making them.
Yiayia’s cabbage leaves were always impeccably cooked – the ribs had a bit of crunch to them, but the leaves themselves were silky and buttery soft. The filling was usually rice and more cabbage with an assortment of herbs cooked to perfection, but sometimes she would surprise us by adding a little bit of meat when we had some. And, her egg-lemon sauce was the best there ever was – rich and creamy from the eggs, bright and exciting from the lemon, and married the whole dish together beautifully.
We also made all kinds of lachanosalates (cabbage salads), with whatever bounty our farm and garden provided at the time; we made lachanosoupa (cabbage soup) – not like the ‘famous’ Cabbage Soup Diet, but real soups that nourished the body and the soul, like a garden in your bowl. Sometimes, we would make lachanorizo, (with rice), which was similar to Yiayia’s stuffing for lachanodolmades, but here she would make the dish in more of a steeped ‘risotto’ style – I still crave this dish, and think of her every time I make it.
We All Have Cabbage… It’s What You Do with It That Counts
What makes cabbage so special – beyond everything I’ve talked about – is its culinary versatility. Yes, it’s cost effective, aesthetically pleasing, nutritious, and substantive, but seeing its varied applications in cuisines around the world is what raises cabbage to true hero status for me.
In Korea, you find kimchi, the most quintessentially Korean food item there is, used for and with mostly everything served in Korea. In Germany and France, you find sauerkraut and braised red cabbage (sometimes simple, sometimes a sweet and sour variation), for example. In Eastern European cuisine (often identified as Jewish), you find stuffed cabbage that is both sweet and savory, braised, pickled, and more. In Ireland, you find the renowned corned beef and cabbage, as well as colcannon, the Irish answer to the Greek lachanopita ( or cabbage pie). In China, you’ll find stir-fried cabbage, and dumplings, noodles, or buns with cabbage – just about everything includes it. And here in America, what could be more iconic than cole slaw!
The list goes on and on, but one thing is clear – cabbage is the worldliest vegetable of them all. So this holiday season, be sure to celebrate this unsung hero of the culinary world by including cabbage on your holiday menus, and sing its praises for all your family and friends to enjoy! Kalí órexi! Enjoy your meal!
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