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The comeback of cabbage: a seasonal wonder veggie

Cabbage entered my home for the first time this week. While I’d eaten cabbage in the occasional picnic coleslaw, I’d never in my life bought it, cooked with it, or even seen it in a refrigerator (neither my parents nor my own). And that, according to the New York Times and Men’s Health, is a mistake. Due to it’s high levels of vitamins and minerals and cancer-fighting power, cabbage ranks high on their lists of the best foods you aren’t eating.

Somehow, this hearty cruciferous lost favor in the New World- it was a staple of ancient Greece and Rome and is still eaten regularly in Europe and Asia-, but it crept back into my diet this week after my mother-in-law sent me home with a then-unidentified veggie from her garden. 

Only after peeling back a layer of leaves and confirming that I wasn’t holding a cauliflower or broccoli (only since marrying into a gardening family have I learned that these vegetables grow surrounded by big leaves), did it dawn on me that the veggie head I was holding resembled a cabbage.

An impromptu coleslaw

Once confirming my guess via a quick google images search, I was at a loss with what to do with this novel produce. A second google search later and I was scouring my fridge for coleslaw ingredients. 

I had found recipes and blog posts for not the soggy side dish that tends to be more mayonnaise than vegetable- that I’d learned to avoid at every potluck and picnic-, but a crunchy winter salad tossed with just a light vinaigrette.

After about 10 minutes scrounging supplies, chopping veggies and mixing it all together, I had my first homemade coleslaw (see video A seasonal winter salad). My first experiment with cabbage went extremely well: after letting the cabbage absorb the flavors of the dressing, I ate nearly the entire salad myself, standing in the kitchen. The stuff can be surprisingly tasty, soaked in the right condiments (see eco-DIY A winter salad recipe).

What a garden can do to your diet

I’m now in my first throes of lust for this new-to-me produce. It’s exciting to add an entirely new vegetable to your repertoire at the age of 39. I credit not just a new food culture- cabbage is nearly a staple in the Mediterranean diet-, but a gardening culture. If it weren’t for my mother-in-law’s prolific backyard, I would never have stretched my culinary skills.

Talking up my newfound veg to friends, I’m finding that in many parts of the world cabbage cuisine isn’t such a novelty and I’m not just referring to Eastern Europe (borscht), Germany (sauerkraut) and Korea (kimchi)). Yesterday during a playdate with our kids, I mentioned my encounter with cabbage to my English friend Sarah and she said that her Chilean partner often makes cabbage salads, mixing it with lemon to cut its bitterness.

Last night, while emailing with my Belgian friend Veerle, I learned that it’s common in her country’s backyard gardens. She said they either cook it with a “white sauce” (my mother-in-law cooks it with a bechamel sauce, as well) or mix it with smashed potatoes. Though she said if I really wanted a country enamored with the stuff I should look further north.

The most typical Dutch meal- according to Veerle who just spent 4 years working on her PhD in bone science in Amsterdam- is boerenkool: boiled cabbage smashed into potatoes, served with sausage. Though before you attempt to replicate this national treasure, this most popular example of Dutch cuisine seems to be a point of humor for their neighbors to the south.

Where cabbage isn’t ghettoized

In the Mediterranean region- home of the wild mustard plants from which cabbage was first cultivated-, this vegetable is a wintertime staple, and proudly so. While we Americans might see it as something you boil when no one will come smell your kitchen, this Christmas dinner my mother-in-law baked purple cabbage for all 20 of us. And it was grandly served as a primary plate instead of potatoes (after all, those are a New World thing).

Part of the reason cabbage has escaped a stigma here may be more a question of semantics. In both Spain and Italy, the word of cabbage is not specific to just the type with a head. In Italy the generic term cavolo is used for the headed varieties- Savoy cabbage is cavolo verza-, but it’s also applied to close relatives like broccoli (cavolo broccolo).

Here in Spain, col pops up everywhere all winter long: kale is col rizada; brussels sprouts are col de Bruselas; cauliflower is coliflor; and broccoli is brócoli

Of course, we do have the term “cole” in English to define this large family of cruciferous vegetables, but it’s been exiled to ag talk. And you have to be an insider to know the connections between cole, borecole, colewart, collards and cabbage (or a European who grows it in the snow).

It seems we now have a separate vocabulary for farmers and I think that may be important. I wonder if this lack of vocabulary makes it easier for us non-farmers to forget that there are some vegetables that grow better during the colder months. And I wonder if it makes it easier to simply forget about members of a veggie family if the family has lost its name. 

An ugly, unidentified vegetable

The week before last my mother-in-law sent me home with another unidentifiable vegetable. This one was ugly: it looked like broccoli stems with tiny wisps of leaves growing off them. 

I was at a loss with what to do with this physically-challenged veg so I simply steamed it with my broccoli (a common side dish to our beans and rice lunches). Surprisingly, given the plants’ appearance, it tasted good, but the entire week I never did know what I was eating. So when my mother-in-law called yesterday, I asked her what it was called.

Col,” she responded. Of course. Though this one doesn’t seem to have a second name. So since my mother-in-law explained that it is very typical to Catalonia and the Pyrenees where it grows well under cold weather conditions, I will dub it Catalon col.