Latin Name: Brassica oleracea
Other Names: chou (French), napa (Japanese)
Cabbage has been a human mainstay for millennia. It’s a common ingredient of nearly every culture in the northern hemisphere nearly every culture in the northern hemisphere, from the British Isles to the Japanese archipelago. These cruciferous (Brassicaceae family) vegetables are typically around a pound or two in size, but grow much bigger. If you’ve ever subscribed to a CSA box, you’ve no doubt seen a single head weighing upwards of 10 pounds. Whether you prefer white, red, or ruffly Savoy cabbage, look for firm, compact specimens and store them in a plastic bag in the fridge, where they’ll keep for a couple months.
Why is it healthy?
Cruciferous vegetables are nutritional powerhouses. Cabbages are packed with fiber, vitamins (especially C and K), and minerals (notably manganese, calcium, and potassium). They’re also full of antioxidant polyphenols and beneficial sulfur compounds (which give them their characteristic mustardy taste). These substances can reduce inflammation and appear to protect against chronic conditions like heart disease and arthritis.
What does it taste like?
Like its mustard cousins broccoli and Brussels sprouts, cabbage has a pungent quality. Though it’s decidedly milder than other crucifers, cooking cabbage still releases the unmistakable wet sock-aroma of allyl isothiocyanate (the odor is more pronounced in higher temperatures). This sulfuric funk is accentuated by fermentation (as in sauerkraut), but when roasted, cabbage takes on a wonderful sweetness.
Where does it grow?
Cabbage’s origins are not clearly known, but based on a combination of written texts and molecular records, its wild ancestor likely came from either the British Isles or northwestern Europe and was domesticated sometime during the Neolithic era. Cabbage is grown around the world; China produces the majority of the global crop, followed by India and Russia.
How do I prepare it and what do I pair it with?
Remove the outer layer of leaves on a head of cabbage, and then the sky’s the limit. You can steam or boil it whole, then peel away the leaves to use for cabbage rolls; you can halve or slice it into thick slabs for roasting or grilling; you can shred it for slaws or fermenting into kraut; or you can roughly chop it and sauté or braise it.
The flavor of cabbage is a natural match for other winter ingredients, especially beans and root vegetables like onions, carrots, potatoes, and beets. It loves acid, especially fruit vinegars. Cabbage paris well with northern European aromatics like dill, chervil, juniper, and allspice; and East Asian fermented flavors like miso and doenjang.
Cabbage’s close ties with babies goes back long before the Cabbage Patch Kids craze of the 1980s; the origin of finding newborn babies in a cabbage patch goes back centuries (at least as far back as stories about delivery by stork). A cabbage leaf applied to the breast is an old folk remedy for mastitis, engorgement, and clogged milk duct in nursing mothers — and one that’s still practiced today.