(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

FoodNovember 4, 2021

Crushing on cabbages

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

Cabbages are the unsung hero of the produce section. Charlotte Muru-Lanning explains why they deserve a lot more love and how you can go about using them.

While supermarkets and your local fruit and veg shop no doubt offer a bewildering array of produce, you only need one vegetable in your fridge and it’s cabbage. The humble cabbage. Austere and reliable. Totally underrated but at the same time totally delicious.

White, red, green, pointed, napa, savoy: it doesn’t matter which. The only thing that matters is that you buy not a quarter, not a half, but the whole thing. You won’t regret lugging the hefty whole orb of leaves home. Cabbage’s fridge lifespan is impressive – as far as vegetables go, the cabbage is near-immortal. Lettuce, broccoli and cucumber wish they could stay this useful for this long. And it’s endlessly adaptable too, as ubiquitous across cuisines as it is across cooking methods. 

Savoy is my personal favourite. It’s by far the most beautiful of the cabbages. With its charmingly ruffled leaves and slight bitterness, there’s useful variation between the fibrous outer leaves and the more tender core of the vegetable. In other words, it has range. 

And while the red variety is just as lovely, it can be a little less forgiving. That is to say, you’ll need to accept that your dish will be dyed violet by its coloured leaves. By the way – though bok choy and Brussels sprouts might sometimes like to call themselves cabbages, I’m not talking about them for today.

Humanity has been so inspired by cabbage that you can in fact serve your cabbage in a cabbage leaf china bowl. Or wear cabbage leaf slides and a cabbage-printed blazer while adding an actual cabbage to your shopping trolley.

A cabbage starter pack.

Although cabbage definitely deserves a better PR team, I’m not under any pretense that cabbage needs a dramatic defence of its character. In fact, while many people probably ate some uninspired cabbage as kids, a bunch of us buy it semi-regularly these days; some of us are even quite fond of it. But still, the cabbage has so much to give and, as far as I’m concerned, is too often relegated to being served uncooked and shredded. 

A ‘slaw is fine, but a cabbage is capable of so much more.

In a stew

If you’re working from home at the moment, a boil-up is the perfect slow-cook dish to supervise on breaks from your computer. All it needs is a fresh blanket of cabbage at the end (and if you have it, watercress too). There are also a bunch of simplistic Italian “peasant” stews combining beans, rice, breads, cheeses and cabbage which would make for a wonderful lazy dinner. Italian chef Antonio Carluccio’s zuppa di cavolo (cabbage soup) is possibly the most elegant of this genre, and the ideal way to use both sliced cabbage and stale bread. 

Roll it up

Consider making an oven hāngī with your giant leaves of cabbage: steam meat, stuffing and root vegetables in mini cabbage hāngī kono. Or make spicy tuna cabbage rolls –  an excellent way to use leftover rice. Here’s how: Steam whole cabbage leaves in a steamer or, if you’re like me, by using a metal colander perched haphazardly on top of a pot of boiling water. Cut out the more fibrous parts of the leaf and fill the softer parts with rice, Don Won hot pepper tuna and Kewpie mayo. Polish gołąbki are another option that will likely impress whoever you’re cooking for – even if that just happens to be yourself: steam your leaves and wrap around minced pork or beef, fried onion and rice. Organise into an ovenproof dish, cover with a tomato sauce and bake.

On the stove

Boiled cabbage steeped till tender in broth, miso or coconut milk might be the most perfect at-home lunch I can think of. In fact, the most simple version – boiled in salted water and served alongside a slice of toast spread generously with butter – might be the most perfect option of all. If you’re in need of a comforting side dish with your dinner, look to butter braised cabbage. This can be served as is or studded with currants, sultanas or dried barberries. Or, and this works especially well if your cabbage is on its last legs, you could fry wedges of it in olive oil, salt and pepper till blackened. A squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of yoghurt before serving makes a big difference here too.

Fried

Though any cabbage would do in a pinch, napa cabbage is ideal for a Sichuan style stir fry. Toast Sichuan peppercorns in a neutral oil in your wok, remove the peppercorns, add in sliced garlic, ginger, whole dried chillies and then your hand-torn pieces of cabbage. Follow up with soy sauce, chinkiang vinegar, msg (or salt) and sugar. Slices of Chinese sausage, a whisked egg or short sticks of spring onion could be added too. This is delightful on rice or as a green accompaniment to mapo tofu or fried noodles. Coconut cabbage poriyal, flecked with mustard seeds, curry leaves and grated coconut, partners well with curries. Or, you could opt for Sri Lankan dish gova thel. That involves sauteing chunks of cabbage in a dry pan on low heat until the leaves are wilted and dry. Add oil, sliced onion, curry leaves, garlic, turmeric powder and salt. Cook till the edges burn ever so slightly and finish with chilli flakes and lime or lemon juice.

Raw

If your cabbage is still looking vibrant, leave it uncooked. Tear or sliver into a bowl or onto the biggest and fanciest plate you have, and tumble over fresh or dried fruits, herbs, thin rings of chilli, crunchy vegetables and a glug of vinegary dressing. Consider using the more fibrous outer leaves as you would kale too!

Pickled

Whether you go the way of kimchi or kraut, spending time making jars filled with vibrantly coloured preserved cabbage is technically an investment in your future.

There’s something calming about knowing you’ve got a cabbage in the fridge. No matter what you’re cooking, trust that it will be there for you. It won’t just fill an entire crisper drawer in your fridge – a cabbage will fill your heart too.

Illustrations by Sharon Lam

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