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Sauerkraut can be a versatile dish.

Food and Drink

Make friends with cabbage

A classic and inexpensive winter vegetable is starting to earn its culinary due — and it won’t reek if you cook it the right way

BRATTLEBORO—“Like warmed up cabbage served at each repast / The repetition kills the wretch at last.” Juvenal Satires (c. 120 A.D.)

Pity the poor cabbage, for it gets a bad rap.

Unlike sexier members of the brassica vegetable family — kale in all its varieties and brussels sprouts — cabbage has not yet achieved the same foodie cachet.

Regular old head cabbage is seen as utilitarian, the food of the lumpen proletariat. “Tasty and economical, cabbage has long been considered a classic among [German] army folk,” reports “Culinaria: European Specialties,” the comprehensive tome of European food traditions.

“Cabbage: A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man’s head,” Ambrose Bierce wrote in his caustic classic, “The Devil’s Dictionary.”

Its name “is a derivation of the French word caboche, a colloquial term for ‘head,’” writes Sharon Taylor Herbst in “The Food Lover’s Companion.”

As Harold McGee writes in “On Food And Cooking,” wild cabbage originated on the shores of the Mediterranean, and the region’s salty, sunny terroir demanded the plant evolve to retain water much as a desert succulent would: with a waxy cuticle and thick leaves.

Cultivated cabbage’s history can be traced back about 2,500 years, and the British Isles received the vegetable from the Romans, whom McGee wrote “believed it to be a prophylactic against the discomforts of high living.”

McGee’s research shows the late-15th-century as the time of the first known “elaborate recipes” for cabbage dishes. He attributes them to François Pierre La Varenne, chef to Henri IV, and notes the instructions list five ways to cook the vegetable.

While most cultures’ cuisines rely on cabbage for their iconic foods, some of their proverbs disparage it. “Cabbage twice cooked is death,” the Greeks sneer, perhaps while dining on lahano katsarolas (stewed cabbage with mint).

The Slovaks’ saying relies on a heavy dose of sarcasm —€• “Cabbage is best after it is reheated seven times” — but their national dish, kapustové haluscaronky (potato dumplings with sauerkraut) relies on a heavy dose of cabbage.

Even sauerkraut, currently the most hip version of cabbage, was almost outlawed in the United States, at least by name. As H.L. Mencken wrote in 1934, “When, during the [first] World War, certain super-patriots went about the country seeking to extirpate every vestige of the German Kultur, they quickly collided with sauerkraut and were bested by it. Unable to induce Americans to stop eating it, they tried to change its name to liberty cabbage, but the only reply was a laugh, and it went on under its original colors.”

Yet, as Mencken noted, cabbage endures. And for Vermonters wishing for fresh, locally-grown produce in the dead of winter, cabbage is a loyal friend.

The vegetable thrives in cold climates; it can be picked late into the fall, and its hardy constitution lends itself well to longer-term storage, especially when kept in a root cellar, as Burlington-based gardener Ron Krupp writes in his book, “The Woodchuck Returns To Gardening.”

“I remember one fall in the mid-1970s, when I had grown a field of hardy cabbages that got snowed under in late October and were buried all winter. Oh, were those cabbages sweet in the spring,” although Krupp is careful to note, “that had never happened to me before and probably never will again."

Food Connects, the Brattleboro organization dedicated to connecting local consumers, schools, and other institutions to farms in and around Windham County, has chosen cabbage as February’s “Harvest of the Month.” [see sidebar]

Cabbage offers nutrition. According to the USDA, one half-cup of cabbage provides 45 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C, some dietary fiber, calcium, and iron, and has no fat, just 2 grams of sugar, and 1 percent of the recommended daily allowance of sodium.

And, considering most of the world’s cuisines feature the vegetable —€• Poland’s gobki (stuffed cabbage rolls in tomato sauce), Korea’s kimch’i (fermented, seasoned cabbage), Alsace’s choucroute garnie (sauerkraut with cured meats and potatoes), to name just a few — there must be ways to make it taste good.

So, why is cabbage so maligned? Similar to other cruciferous vegetables, cooking it wrong is not only easy to do, but makes for an unpleasant aromatic and gustatory experience.

McGee notes that cabbage and other similar vegetables (“mustard, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips”) contain sulfurous compounds, the most prominent being mustard oils, or isothiocyanates, “but the enzyme that would convert them into aromatic compounds is inactive at the pH of living tissue” — when the vegetable is in its raw state — “and so they do not contribute to flavor.”

But, McGee adds, cabbage is cooked more often than it is eaten raw, and cooking weakens the plant’s tissue, releasing the isothiocyanates and breaking them down into “various odiferous compounds, including hydrogen sulfide (typical of rotten eggs), ammonia, mercaptans, and methyl sulfide; eventually these may react with each other to form especially powerful trisulfides.”

This process causes “a sharp, burning... rather persistent odor” that McGee describes as “both familiar and annoying...” and, much to a diner’s dismay, McGee notes the longer one cooks cabbage, the more of these odiferous compounds are produced. Whereas most vegetables’ flavor has an inverse relationship to cooking time, the brassicas taste stronger the longer they heat — and cooking cabbage in aluminum vessels increases unpleasant flavors and odors.

McGee offers this data: “The amount of hydrogen sulfide produced in boiled cabbage doubles in the fifth through the seventh minute of cooking. So as the pungent bite of the raw vegetable disappears, it is replaced by an ever stronger odor.”

One way to avoid this unpleasantry is to simply serve cabbage in its uncooked state, but many find raw cabbage bites them back. Thus, two of the most popular American cabbage recipes: cole slaw and sauerkraut.

Cole slaw, which is essentially a “quick pickle,” utilizes just a little salt to weaken the cabbage’s fiber and spiciness, and a bit more mayonnaise to offer a pleasant creaminess. Brattleboro’s Judith Thomas offers her classic recipe for Country Cole Slaw [see recipes sidebar].

Sauerkraut, which McGee says “was brought to Europe by the Tartars from China,” relies on fermentation to provide the benefits of cooking —€• softer texture, enhanced flavor — without using heat to damage the flavor or lose nutrients into the cooking liquid.

Leda Scheintaub and Nash Patel make use of sauerkraut in a number of menu items at their Brattleboro-based South Indian eatery and catering company, Dosa Kitchen. At home, Scheintaub also cooks the vegetable: “Cabbage is great roasted too! Sliced, seasoned, tossed with olive oil in the oven at 425 for about 15 minutes."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #292 (Wednesday, February 11, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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