Cabbage has a reputation as an overbearing, pungent vegetable — one most often prepared as sauerkraut or traditional coleslaws. But today’s creative, veggie-minded cooks are catching on to the fact that this cruciferous vegetable is actually a very versatile ingredient — one with subtlety, style and nutritional strength.
Although green and red cabbages are most familiar to U.S. cooks, there are other cabbage varieties with less dense texture and more delicate flavors that vastly expand cabbage’s culinary repertoire.
Savoy cabbage, which is popular in France and Belgium, is a descendent of the wild cabbage of Turkey. Many people consider it to be the best kind of cabbage for cooking because of its mellow flavor and gorgeous appearance: It has a loose head of crinkly leaves in various shades of yellow-green.
Then there’s napa cabbage, a personal favorite of mine. Also called Chinese cabbage, it originated near the Beijing region of China. It has a delicate, peppery flavor, and its leaves, which are cream-colored with light-green tips, are crisp, thin, crinkly and thickly veined.
These two cabbages are becoming easier to find in American markets, and they are definitely worth working into your cabbage rotations. You can use them in any recipe calling for cabbage (just keep in mind that they require less cooking time than conventional red and green varieties). For starters, you might try out the cooking tips and recipes on the following pages.
- Recent studies have shown that people who regularly eat cruciferous vegetables — even compared with those who eat a lot of other vegetables — have a much lower risk of several types of cancer, including breast, ovarian, prostate, bladder, colorectal and lung cancer.
- One cup of raw, shredded savoy cabbage provides 60 percent of your daily recommended allowance of vitamin K, which is important for healthy blood coagulation and maintaining bone mass. It’s also loaded with vitamin C, phytonutrients and fiber.
- When cooked, savoy’s vitamin K disappears. But steaming or lightly boiling savoy makes other vitamins — especially vitamins C and A — more accessible during the digestion process.
- Raw, shredded napa cabbage offers plenty of vitamin C, plus some vitamin A and calcium. The vegetable’s folate, manganese, copper and iron are not readily accessible to the body when it’s raw.
- When steamed or lightly boiled, though, a cup of napa cabbage delivers 12 percent of your RDA of folate, as well as a healthy mix of manganese, vitamins A and C, copper, and iron.
- The strong flavor of cabbage comes from its glucosinolates, which contain sulfur and nitrogen. Glucosinolates and isothiocyanates are phytochemicals in cabbage that help ward off cancer. By signaling the genes to increase production of certain enzymes, cabbage’s phytonutrients also help optimize the body’s detoxifying abilities.
- Raw cabbage juice has been shown to be effective in treating peptic ulcers.
- Look for cabbage heads that are heavy for their size and vibrantly colored. The outer leaves should be crisp and free of cracks, browning, blemishes and limpness.
- Seek out organic cabbage, which has higher levels of phytonutrients than conventionally grown cabbage.
- As soon as cabbage leaves are cut or torn, the vegetable begins to lose its vitamin C, so avoid purchasing halved, quartered or shredded cabbage.
- Cabbage keeps better and retains more of its vitamin C when kept cold. Place whole heads in perforated plastic bags in your refrigerator crisper. Savoy cabbage will keep for up to a week; napa cabbage for about three days.
- If you have to store a partial head of cabbage, make sure to cover it tightly with plastic wrap and then refrigerate.
- To reduce cabbage’s pungent aroma, avoid overcooking. Thinly sliced cabbage should be cooked no longer than four minutes and served as soon as possible.
- Use stainless steel or glass cookware when cooking cabbage. Avoid using aluminum cookware since it promotes a chemical reaction that causes discoloration and strong aromas.
- One-half of a medium-size head will yield about 4½ cups when shredded.
More Ways to Enjoy Cabbage
- For a fast and tasty dinner, sauté shredded savoy cabbage with peas and garlic, then toss with a little chicken stock, cream and whole-grain penne.
- Try adding thinly shredded savoy or napa cabbage to vegetable and green salads, or to soups like minestrone, borscht and hearty potato stew.
- Cabbage is luscious when braised with thinly sliced onions and a touch of chicken or vegetable stock, apple juice or wine, and aromatics like caraway, cayenne, toasted cumin, or garlic. Bring to a boil quickly, reduce heat, cover and simmer until tender.
- When blanched, the long, broad leaves of napa cabbage create elegant bundles. Fill them with cooked grains, vegetables, ground shrimp, poultry or meats, and then steam for five to seven minutes.
- Update traditional hash browns by combining shredded cabbage with potatoes and seasoning with a touch of bacon and maple syrup. They’re a great accompaniment to eggs and smoked meats.
- Creamy buttered cabbage is a classic Irish favorite that’s terrific with corned beef or a family pork recipe. Just heat butter in a sauté pan over medium heat until it’s lightly browned, add thinly shredded savoy cabbage, sea salt and pepper, and sauté for about five minutes. The browned butter will add a nutty flavor to the sweet cabbage.
Stir-Fried Chicken and Vegetables With Coconut Curry Sauce
Makes four servings
Julienned savoy or napa cabbage is the perfect addition to any stir-fry. Add the cabbage at the beginning of the cooking for mellow flavor and texture — or toss in near the end to retain its crisp freshness.
- 1 cup vegetable stock
- 2 cups coconut milk
- 1 to 2 drops Thai fish sauce
- 3 tbs. soy sauce
- 3 tbs. red curry paste; for less spicy version, use 1 to 2 tbs.
- 1 tbs. toasted sesame oil
- 1 tbs. grated ginger
- 2 tsp. minced garlic
- 1/4 cup minced green onions
- 2 cups thinly sliced chicken breast
- 3 cups shredded savoy or napa cabbage
- 2 cups julienned red bell pepper
- 1 cup julienned carrot
- 1 cup broccoli florets
- 2 tbs. chopped cilantro
- 4 tbs. chopped peanuts
For the curry sauce: Combine the vegetable stock, coconut milk, fish sauce, soy sauce and curry paste in a small saucepan. Heat to a low simmer. Stir to dissolve red curry paste and keep warm.
For the stir-fry: Heat sesame oil in a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat. Stir in ginger, garlic and green onions. Add the chicken and stir-fry, stirring constantly, for about five minutes until golden brown. Add remaining vegetables and stir-fry for two minutes. Add curry sauce to the pan to deglaze. Divide among four serving bowls and garnish with cilantro sprigs and chopped peanuts.
Apple Cabbage Coleslaw With Poppy Seed Vinaigrette
Makes six servings
Apples and braised cabbage is the classic flavor pairing that inspired this salad. Traditional mayonnaise is replaced with poppy seed vinaigrette, which adds a great contrast of color and flavor. Full-fat yogurt is also a great substitute for mayo-based coleslaws.
- 1/2 tsp. minced garlic
- 1/3 cup white balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbs. honey
- 2 tsp. Dijon-style mustard
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tbs. poppy seeds
- 3 cups shredded savoy cabbage
- 1 cup julienned carrots
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
- 2 thinly sliced gala apples
For the vinaigrette: Combine the garlic, vinegar, honey and mustard in a blender. While the blender is running, slowly drizzle in the oil to create a creamy vinaigrette. Stir in poppy seeds by hand.
For the salad: In a large bowl, combine cabbage, carrots, onion and apples. Pour dressing over and mix well.
Tofu and Napa Cabbage Rolls With Dipping Sauce
Makes four servings
Pairing tofu with sweet napa cabbage makes a wonderful and elegant vegetarian entrée. Feel free to omit the tofu altogether and just go with the veggies.
Cabbage rolls (pictured above)
- 4 napa cabbage leaves
- 1/4 tsp. sesame oil
- 1 tbs. minced garlic
- 1 tbs. minced ginger
- 2 tbs. finely chopped green onions
- 1/2 cup julienned carrots
- 1/2 cup julienned daikon radish
- 1/2 cup julienned napa cabbage
- 1/2 cup julienned yellow squash
- 1/2 cup julienned fresh shiitake mushrooms
- 12 ounces Asian baked tofu, cut into small diced pieces
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 tsp. chili paste
- 2 tbs. thinly sliced green onions
- 1 1/2 tsp. rice wine vinegar
- 1 tbs. honey
- 2 tbs. soy sauce
- 1/4 cup chopped chives, garnish
Bring a medium saucepot with water to a boil. In a large bowl, prepare an ice bath with cold water and ice. Place the cabbage in the boiling water for 30 seconds to one minute to blanch, then place in ice water to stop cooking. Set aside.
Heat a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the sesame oil, garlic, ginger and green onions. Stir in the carrots, radish, cabbage, squash and mushrooms. Sauté for about three minutes. Remove from the heat and place in a mixing bowl. Gently fold in the tofu.
Assembly: Scoop 1/4 cup of the tofu mixture into the middle of a cabbage leaf. Fold in the sides of the cabbage and then begin rolling up the end of the cabbage to form a roll. Repeat with remaining pieces.
Place the cabbage rolls in the top of a steamer and steam for five to seven minutes or until hot throughout.
In a small bowl, whisk together dipping-sauce ingredients. Arrange two cabbage rolls on serving plate and garnish with the chives. Serve with dipping sauce.
Chef Cary Neff is the author of the New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).