Let people worship kale, let them put avocados on everything, let them drink beet juice, I say. Me? I will take cabbage. The humble, hearty, and healthy heads are nature's closest things to magic.
For the last eight years I have been living with Crohn’s Disease. Between medicine switches, not-so-comfortable procedures, and an immune system that simply doesn’t work correctly, I find myself needing probiotics every day. Kombucha, supplements, and raw fermented cabbage have been a big part of my disease management for several years. So this month while you are soaking up your umpteenth Guinness with braised Irish cabbage, remember, these overgrown brussels sprouts do a lot more than accompany potatoes.
Cabbage has been known the world over for its medicinal purposes since before the seas were filled with monsters and the map had a “falling off” warning. Egyptian pharaohs would stuff themselves silly with the leafy vegetables before a night of hard partying. Before the Irish even existed, the pharaohs figured out that cabbage acted to soak up some alcohol and prevent hangovers the next day. It is not hyperbole to say cabbage built the pyramids (alright, maybe that’s a touch hyperbolic). Greek and Roman cultures celebrated the green variety for its curative properties. Cato, like the pharaohs, advocated strongly for its consumption before drinking, saying “it will make you feel as if you had not eaten, and you can drink as much as you like.” Party on, Cato, party on.
Domesticated somewhere in Europe at some point before 1000 BCE, the humble beginnings of the cabbage are unknown. What is known, however, is how important the crop became to Europeans in the Middle Ages. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Middle Age artwork – cabbage makes more than a few appearances in photos symbolizing a good harvest and (in Eastern cultures) luck.
Cabbage shares a familial home with several of our favorite super foods. The member of the mustard family shares heritage with kale, collards, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and, of course, brussels sprouts. It should be no surprise, then, that the varietals (green, red, and Savoy, to name a few) are all packed with nutrients. From Vitamins A to K, the amino acid glutamine to the antioxidant quercetin, and calcium to boot, cabbage is a heavy hitter in the health food arena raw or cooked. In my opinion, where cabbage truly shines is fermentation. With the simple addition of salt, cabbage anaerobically produces the probiotic lactobacillus. You know those Activia yogurt commercials praising the pricy probiotic? Cabbage is about a tenth of the price and much more effective.
So let’s jump on in to the wide world of cabbage cookery.
Fermentation is a process and technique, not a recipe. Sauerkraut, fermented cabbage, is an excellent first step if you have never fermented before; it’s simple, tasty, and hard to mess up. If you use fresh cabbage and at least a little salt, you will get a decent tasting ‘kraut. Secondly, and most critically, you have to create an anaerobic environment for the bacteria to thrive. During culinary school, a friend and I created a sauerkraut in a week. We were able to do this by pressing it with plastic bags filled with water. The bags prevented any air from escaping, while weighing down the quick ‘kraut, which is why a week was enough time. In an ideal situation, your sauerkraut would ferment for at least two weeks.
Again, there are different techniques for different applications, but the one that worked best for us was a combinations of pounding, kneading, and weighing the cabbage. Cultures for Health have an excellent “recipe” if you are into that, but I will detail how Garrett and I accomplished a seven-day sauerkraut.
Shred your cabbage. Remember the shreds are going to shrink a ton, so 1/8th of an inch shreds were perfect for us.
Place cabbage in a clean sink or large bowl (the cleanliness is huge here, you don’t want any other bacteria at your probiotic party). The amount of salt you need will depend on how much cabbage you are using. A good ratio to remember is 1:10 salt to cabbage. So for ten pounds of cabbage, use about one pound (or two cups) of salt. Sprinkle your salt over the cabbage.
Start massaging the heck out of the cabbage. I’m not kidding, knead and massage that wet mass like it is your Valentine. The cabbage will immediately start leaching water and shrinking. In my professional culinary opinion, this is the coolest part.
After a good ten-minute rub down, drain the water that has collected. Rinse the cabbage with cool, clean water (if you can get distilled, it is another measure of control) thoroughly and drain again, reserving at least two cups of the run off brine. At this point taste a little piece of your future sauerkraut. If it is too salty, rinse again. If not, proceed to step 5.
Put the drained cabbage in a container that can be easily sealed. At school we used a large bus tub with heavy bags of water on top; at home I use mason jars. For the average cook, if you can wait, the cabbage doesn’t need to be weighted. So pack a jar as full as you can get it, making the cabbage is submerged in brine. This is not Chicago Health Department sanctioned, but I like to let the jars sit at room temperature for a few hours (or even overnight) to jump start the fermentation. Then I refrigerate.
Wait a little more. If you ferment in a clear container, you will be able to see bubbles where the bacteria are going to work.
After about two weeks, check it. If you like the texture and flavor, by golly, eat it up. If you want slightly softer and funkier sauerkraut put it back in the refrigerator for another week or two.
Once you get the hang of basic cabbage fermentation, try your hand at making kimchi. The spicy, unctuous condiment can be eaten with everything from rice and eggs to tacos and most things in between. The word kimchi simply refers to a pickled vegetable, but the American public is most familiar with seeing the cabbage variety. When eaten raw this condiment packs a serious probiotic punch.
When making it at home there are a couple things to note. Firstly, this takes time; good kimchi can be made in a couple of days, great kimchi needs longer. The trademark funkiness comes from the controlled fermentation and spoilage of the cabbage, and that simply doesn’t happen overnight. Secondly, it smells. If you have a small apartment with little to no ventilation, the first couple of hours with your kimchi will be a little smelly. There are certainly ways to ferment under refrigeration and in mason jars to cut down on the smell, but the first part of the process needs to be done at room temperature. Thirdly, there are many ways to make kimchi. I am only detailing one technique. PBS has an excellent show called Inside the Mind of a Chef (don’t worry, it’s on Netflix), and I am using the recipe that David Chang uses.
- 1 head Napa cabbage
- 5 cloves garlic
- 1 small onion
- 1” piece of ginger, peeled
- ½ c dried Korean hot pepper
- 1 Tbsp rice flour
- ½ Tbsp salted shrimp
- 4 scallions, chopped
- ¼ c anchovy sauce (if you wanted to make this vegan exclude this and the dried shrimp)
- Kosher salt, a whole bunch of it
- 2 slices canned pineapple
Clean the cabbage and cut leaves into squares.
In the biggest bowl you have put a layer of cabbage in the bottom and salt liberally. Add another layer of cabbage and salt. Do this until you have used all of the cabbage. After about two hours the cabbage should look limp, that’s when you are ready to move on. While you are waiting, feel free to make the spice mixture.
Put garlic, onions, ginger, pepper, shrimp, and pineapple into a blender and blend until smooth. Add anchovy sauce and rice flour and blend until combined.
When the cabbage looks limp, thoroughly rinse it in water.
In a clean bowl mix scallions, spice mixture, and drained cabbage. Mix by hand (with gloves) until all of the cabbage is coated.
Pack into clean jars and let sit out for at least 48 hours depending on how funky you want it. After that you can refrigerate and enjoy your spoils.
Irish Buttered Cabbage
Knowing very little about Irish cuisine, I originally planned on including a recipe for corned beef and cabbage right here. After a quick search yielded many results saying how the dish was a bastardization and almost never served in Ireland, I decided to include a more traditional recipe. Potatoes and cabbage, the two simple-looking but useful stepsisters of the vegetable world, have become synonymous with Irish food and some day in mid-March. Both can be used in this recipe and both are excellent at soaking up green beer. So skip the corned beef this year, and try this recipe adapted from The Irish American Mom blog.
- 1/ 2head of green cabbage
- 1 tsp black peppercorn
- 3 slices of bacon
- 1 knob Irish butter
Take the outer leaf off the cabbage and put bacon and peppercorns in the center. Using kitchen twine, tie the leaf together to make a pouch containing the bacon and peppercorn. This will flavor the water and keep the rest of the cabbage clean.
Cut the core out of the cabbage (a v-shaped cut is the easiest way to do this) and start pulling the leaves from the head of cabbage. Rinse the leaves under cold water to clean.
Put cabbage, salt, and flavor bundle into a pot and cover with water. Bring the cabbage to a boil. Turn down heat and let simmer for 20 minutes, or until cabbage is desired tenderness.
Drain. Discard flavoring pack. Cut cooked cabbage into smaller shreds and return to pot. Add butter and let melt. Serve with potatoes and a giant beer.
There is nothing better in the middle of summer than catfish, hush puppies, and creamy coleslaw. Truth be told, I like most types of slaw. From the vinegar-based that accompanies Texas barbeque to the crunchy red cabbage slaw on fish tacos, it’s all good to me. That being said, there is something so ingrained in my DNA that makes me crave the creamy, shredded type you usually see alongside fried fish. The recipe below was adapted from the Divas Can Cook blog.
- ½ head green cabbage
- 1 carrot, peeled
- ½ small onion
- ½ c mayonnaise
- 1 ½ Tbsp lemon juice
- 2 ½ Tbsp buttermilk
- 1 ½ Tbsp white vinegar
- 3 Tbsp sugar
- Salt and pepper
Grate cabbage, carrot, and onion. If you have a food processor with a shredding attachment, use it. It will save you time and your knuckles.
In a bowl combine the rest of the ingredients. Whisk until the dressing looks smooth.
Add cabbage mixture and toss to combine.
Refrigerate at least a few hours before serving. It makes all the difference. Don’t believe me? Taste a bite fresh and then after a few hours. Profoundly different, right?
Growing up in a Mexican family in the South, Rachel Valdéz began to love food before she could hold a spoon. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism, Rachel decided to go into the kitchen professionally. Having just finished her culinary arts degree at Kendall College, she is primed to start work at one of Chicago’s food nonprofits to help alleviate the pressures of food access issues in Chicago. In her spare time Rachel enjoys cuddling her puppy, haphazardly doing yoga, and writing about herself in the third person.