It is cabbage season, and it has been a bumper crop. Autumn and winter are the seasons for more robust kales and the heavier heads of cabbage; the former has been something of a superfood in recent years, but people still seem to see a whole cabbage head as a daunting prospect. Once you accept that you are unlikely to consume the whole thing in one meal you can be open to the idea of it as a something to use in small amounts across the week. Sometimes it will be the star, but more often it will in a supporting role adding a flash of green (or red) to a season dominated by roots and squash.
Green and Savoy cabbages are the most common cabbages on the scene, but you’ll also find the striking purple-green January King at this time of year along with spear-like heads of pointed cabbage and the vivid red cabbage.
It may look robust and unyielding, but once thinly shredded, cabbage will cook down into a tender side of greens in very little time. It is often at its best simply steamed, boiled, or lightly wilted in a pan; 4-5 mins, at the most, is all you need. Season with a little salt and pepper, and finish with a bit of butter or olive oil and maybe a restrained squeeze of lemon. Try folding your wilted cabbage into buttery mashed potato to make Irish colcannon or mixing with cold mash and chopped leftovers and frying as bubble and squeak cakes. You can even fold shredded cabbage into a simple batter to make savoury pancakes.
Cabbage soup! We hear you cry. It may sound Dickensian, but it all depends on what you pair your cabbage with. A dark winter minestrone, heavy with tomatoes and beans, is ideal. The Portuguese caldo verde is simply stock, potatoes, chorizo, and handfuls of sliced greens to finish. Even a savoury bowl of miso will be enriched with a tangle of noodle-thin greens. 4 mins should be fine on a gentle simmer; serve immediately.
The large, dark outer leaves are robust and are often used as wraps. Remove the central stalk and lightly blanch the leaves. Use to wrap balls of spiced rice or meat and bake or braise in a stew or rich tomato sauce until heated through.
Roast in wedges
People rarely think to roast a cabbage, but it works wonders. The edges should be lightly crisp and burnt but the middle soft and tender. Remove any large, loose outer leaves and cut the cabbage into 8 equal wedges. Brush with oil, season well and lay the wedges in a roasting tray to bake in a medium oven for 15 mins, turning once to colour evenly. Add some white wine or cider and bake for another 10-15 mins, turning once, until tender. Some crispy bacon, and a swirl of mustard, cream and parsley would make this truly indulgent.
Think beyond just carrot and onions. You can make a winter slaw with some apples, beetroot, and celery added; maybe a scattering of walnuts or seeds too, for a bit of texture. Or how about trying something with a bit more zing? Add spring onions, red chillies and ginger, and dress with lime, soy, and some sesame seeds.
Try extending your cabbage’s life by making a jar of sauerkraut or kimchi. At its simplest, you just mix shredded cabbage with the correct ratio of salt and leave to ferment for 4-5 days to develop that distinct savoury depth. It will need a bit of care and the occasional ‘burp’ as it ferments – but it is worth the wait. You can add all sorts of flavourings once you get a taste for it.
Most brassicas will release a sulphurous miasma if cooked for too long, but one of the exceptions seems to be red cabbage. There are countless braised red cabbage recipes, but the common thread is plenty of spice, some gentle heat and some generous time. Something acidic such as wine or vinegar helps to lift it as does something sweet like fruit or sugar – I’d suggest adding any sugar towards the end, if you feel it needs it; most recipes are far too sweet, and it can be a matter of taste.