10 February 2009

The subject: Cabbage

The subject: Cabbage

Negative view: the loser of the vegetable kingdom, air-polluting scourge of school dinners and domestic kitchens.

Positive view: a star of the vegetable kingdom, mainstay of larders from Beijing to Bournemouth, and an essential ingredient in dozens of great dishes. Scientific view: various descendants of Brass/ca oleracea, native to the Mediterranean (and possibly Britain); forebears of Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli and cauliflower.

Field marshall’s view: distantly related to mustard gas. The basics Cabbage is a universal vegetable that’s available, in various forms, year round. Its sad reputation arises (literally and figuratively) from sulphur compounds that turn powerfully malodorous when the flesh is cut Wiser cooks know that it’s wonderful, whether in Korean kimchee, Portuguese caldo verde, or Auvergnat garbure.

The details: Brass/ca capitata — that is, basic white cabbage — has tightly packed, water-retaining leaves that help it stay fresh for weeks and stand up well to pickling. Needs fine shredding and careful cooking; pickles (including coleslaw) are the only good use for raw white cabbage. The cabbage-cook’s true comrade is, first of all, the Savoy, with green, tender leaves, which can be stir-fried, or boiled quickly in salted water, then tossed with butter or olive oil. Savoy is also the cabbage of choice for soups, andgreat for braising in stock with seasonings of your choice. Better still in a braise is red cabbage. This needs a lot of acid (vinegar or red wine) to fix the colour.

Favourite flavourings: any sweet-sour combination, any cured pork product, any spice (eg, cloves, coriander and cumin) that masks the sulphurous stench. The easy way out Not necessary if your batterie de cuisine runs to such luxuries as a knife — pre-chopped packs from supermarkets cost so much that it’s not worth the convenience. (If you really are that lazy, check carefully for any sign of browning).