It’s time to fall in love with cabbage. That’s not a demand or a plea, but solid, practical advice. The heavy, round, green or red heads will nourish you all seasons in stir fries, braises, stuffed leaves, and bright slaws.
Considering its many virtues, cabbage is underappreciated, perhaps because it doesn’t have a heralded annual debut like asparagus, fiddleheads, or tomatoes. The heads aren’t chic or sexy, nor do they have that stand-up-and-take-notice kind of flavor. It’s a timeless stalwart, respected by some, but loved by few.
Mary-Catherine Deibel was once smitten. The co-owner of UpStairs on the Square lived on cabbage during her 20s when she was single. She and her roommate would cook large chunks, palm-size pieces, she says, in a big copper pan and add raisins, and sometimes olives. Sauteed cabbage with rice was dinner a few nights a week. “It’s supposed to be low-cal, but, of course, I sneaked the butter in,” says the Cambridge restaurateur. “I never thought about whether it was good for me or not. It was peasanty, affordable, and delicious. And easy and fast.”
In case you need other reasons, cabbage is filling, high in fiber, loaded with vitamins and nutrients, and will sit happily in your crisper drawer until you get to it. A 2- to 3-pound uncut head will keep for a few weeks and provide two or three good meals. When you do cut into it, wrap the rest of the head tightly in plastic wrap, then in a plastic bag to keep the cut side from turning a little gray; if it does, slice it off and use the rest.
“Cabbage is a food you can get in New England year-round,” says Dave Becker, chef and owner of Needham’s Sweet Basil and author of “Stewed: A Collection of Soups & Braises from Sweet Basil.”
In this region, seedlings go in the ground in April and the first harvest is expected in early June. At Four Town Farm in Seekonk, co-owner Christopher Clegg explains that cabbage is planted continuously through the spring so there’s always a fresh crop. In mid-July, the farm plants 3 acres of fall cabbage, which will mature in mid-October. “With the coolness and lower light of fall, cabbage doesn’t grow as much,” says Clegg. He harvests heads into mid-December. “Cabbage likes cooler, wetter conditions,” he says. “It can take a frost.”
Taste locally raised cabbage and you’ll find it subtly sweet with a hint of mustard or sharpness when raw. A quick saute tames its crunch and mellows the flavor. Over a high flame, cabbage turns golden and caramelizes. When cooked slowly with a little liquid, it becomes meltingly tender, a succulent bed for pork, poultry, or fish. Cabbage loves vinegar, chilies, soy sauce, and bacon fat, not to mention raisins, peanuts, and apples.
If there’s anything new in the cabbage world it’s the popularity of smaller heads, each about 1 pound. “Before mini cabbages, we were cutting heads in half or into quarters to sell at the farmstand,” says Clegg. “People didn’t want a whole head of cabbage.” The largest one he’s ever seen was about 8 pounds.
At his Needham restaurant, Becker likes to make cabbage “because you can put it in everything.” The chef simmers an Asian-style cabbage soup with shrimp, and also makes a hearty succotash with onion, cabbage, potatoes, and edamame.
At Sweet Basil, which he’s owned for 13 years, he has seen how people’s tastes have changed, and his have, too. Becker describes cabbage as “one of those foods that you hate as a kid and come to love.”