Pick of the Months, February/March ‘08

Well, the pressure is on. If I’m going to make you wait two whole months for a Pick post, it had better be one Paris Hilton of a veggie. Although, I’m not quite confident that the star of this post will warrant all that pomp and paparazzi. But I have a special affinity for the underdog, and am always ready to paint a fresh new face when a garden specimen has been, shall we say, misunderstood? Today’s subject has baggage, for sure. But it’s a wonderful transitional vegetable, and with the two months in question spanning two seasons, that’s a helpful thing. We probably all have reasons to dislike cabbage, but today I hope to quell your misgivings.

My husband has told a story from his childhood, where he vividly remembers sitting at the dinner table, refusing to eat a dish that consisted of cooked cabbage and apples. He wasn’t allowed to leave the table until he cleared his plate, so he just sat there and cried, for who knows how long (probably not very, in reality, but it’s an eternity in his mind) — because eating cooked cabbage was so much worse than sitting at a dinner table alone, crying. My childhood memories of the leafy green don’t involve tears, but do involve disgusted glances and avoidance tactics when a giant styrofoam container at the church picnic was filled with tiny, pulpy bits of the stuff swimming in mayo and sugar, in what Kentucky Fried Chicken optimistically labels “coleslaw.”

But the head of cabbage has so much more to offer. Being in high season in the cooler months, and packed as such with a whopping 60% of our daily need of vitamin C, it’s no wonder it shows up in many winter soups and stews, and boiled and braised in the hearty cuisines of the cooler European countries (not to mention its countless uses in Asia). Boiling the stuff does cause a distinct odor to float about your kitchen, which could be attributing to all those bad childhood memories. I usually don’t boil, but braise it in the winter months, served as a side to meat and potatoes. This method cooks it a bit quicker, which can limit the memory-recalling aroma. Braised cabbage is especially nice with ham and pork — we had it a few weeks ago when my mother-in-law prepared a scrumptious meaty ham for dinner (I never cook ham, though I’m not sure why). I’ve cooked versions with apples added, which lends a balancing sweetness to those saltier meats (Tyler Florence has a recipe here, on the FoodNetwork website). But the simplest version is the solo green head, with butter, a touch of low-sodium chicken broth (this recipe is one where it’s handy to freeze a can of broth in a ice cube tray, in tablespoon measures), and a teaspoon or two of fresh herbs (a post about YES! Grow an herb garden this summer! is coming up), is by far the easiest, and still quite lively.

Since it is officially spring, albeit sternly cold in Athens today (I think I could see March shaking a fist at us this morning as I moved my potted herbs back outside from their overnight indoor haven), I thought I should leave you with a discussion of slaw. No, it’s not what KFC tells us it is — it is actually almost as infinitely versatile as the word “salad.” It can star red or green cabbage, and have as much or as little from the garden added to it as you desire, and can (gasp) actually be made without mayo — being dressed with a simple vinaigrette. I have a favorite simple recipe, from a back-issue of Everyday Food. It does involve a small amount of mayo (but feel free to reduce it), and is a great dish to serve at a cookout. It has made more than one person reevaluate their previously-held disdain of coleslaw, and I think the red variety of cabbage has something to do with it. It only calls for a half-head, but wrap the other half in plastic and stick it in your refrigerator, and you can make it again in a couple of weeks (we grill every weekend in the summer, so coleslaw is always an appropriate side).

In the words of Dr. Seuss, which we have on more than one occasion used to encourage our 4-year old to eat something new, “Try it, try it, and you may! Try it, and you may, I say!”

Simple Red Cabbage Slaw (adapted from Everyday Food, June 2005)

  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 Tbsp white-wine vinegar (apple cider vinegar could work here, too)
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 small red cabbage, cored and thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
  • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh italian parsley

In a large bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Add the cabbage, and toss to coat. Refrigerate, covered, for at least 1 hour and up to overnight. Just before serving, stir in the parsley. Taste for seasoning, and serve.

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