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July, 2008

St. Patrick's Day is around the corner... Don't forget the most popular vegetable: Cabbage.

St. Patrick's Day is around the corner... Don't forget the most popular vegetable: Cabbage. The common cabbage as well as the other varieties in the Brassica family that are considered true forms of cabbage, like Brussels Sprouts, Kohlrabi, Chinese Cabbage, and Italian Savoy, were probably all developed from a wild cabbage native to the coasts of Europe that is now extinct and would be unrecognizable in today's marketplace. Cabbages, no matter the variety, have been a staple food in many cultures for centuries. Its hardy shelf-life and nutritional characteristics have made it a basic ingredient in Asian, Mediterranean and European cuisines enjoyed by the common people in the time of Confucius, Cato, Gangis Khan and Charlemagne alike.

Before getting into the facts of cabbages, let's get rid of a few myths about this ancient vegetable. The Cabbage Patch doll craze for instance, was born [no pun intended] from a medieval European legend that cabbage was an aid to becoming pregnant. Brussel SproutsThis belief was propagated by the tradition of serving cabbage soup to newlyweds the morning after their wedding night. This tall tale may have been convenient for couples trying to explain why a birth had occurred so soon after their wedding date with a "the-soup-did-it" explanation, but, of course, there is no basis in science to support this legend. If this is surprising to any of our readers, we suggest that you sit down before verifying Santa's story!

There is also a too-good-to-be-true ancient belief that eating cabbage is a hang-over remedy and that the consumption of cabbage prior to a night of over-imbibing will allow one to drink with no effect. File this under "D" for dreams, along with the fountain-of-youth quest. The practice of gobbling down cabbage before or after nights of liquid decadence is referenced in several accounts of both the early Greeks and Romans. So, indirectly, the vegetable might have been a contributing factor in the demise of these civilizations--in this case, maybe the soup really did do it!

Kohlrabi may look like a turnip exposed to too much radiation but it is a true cabbage with a sweet, peppery, broccoli/cucumber flavor and crisp texture. It is not a root vegetable, but rather a fleshy bulbous stem just above the ground. Kohlrabi is of European origin, and popular in Germany, Russia, and the Baltic region. There are both green- and purple-skinned types, and both have creamy white flesh. It is excellent raw by itself and in salads, and may also be steamed, stir-fried, braised or stuffed. Kohlrabi is high in fiber, and a great source of vitamin C and potassium. The cultivation of cabbage goes back 4000 years. The Chinese learned to preserve this vegetable in brine and it became the staple food of the builders of the Great Wall of China in the third century B.C. To this day, during the fall harvest period, heads of Napa Cabbage can be seen lined up in front of most rural houses, drying in the sun. This ancient custom dates back centuries when dried cabbage was the peasants? only weapon against famine and starvation during the cold winter months. Later, pickled cabbage, carried by conquering Hun and Mongol horsemen, introduced both the vegetable and a new way to preserve foods to Eastern Europe. The popularity of cabbage spread throughout Europe's peasant population, as it had in China, until being replaced by the potato in the late 15th century as the most popular crop of the time.

The early Romans were also aware of the plant's medicinal properties, beyond the aforementioned wine-related myth. Pliny talks about the healing properties of cabbage leaves or juice applied externally. The famed orator Cato put his entire household on a diet of cabbage and water for a time. During the Middle Ages, cabbage plasters were being used as a remedy for sciatica and varicose ulcers. These healing properties can be traced to the same element that accounts for the vegetable's awful smell when being boiled - sulfur. By the eighteenth century, cabbages were being loaded onto ships for long voyages. The vitamin C helped to stave off scurvy, and had other uses as well, as Captain Cook discovered while on his first voyage. When a violent storm injured 40 of his crew, the ship's doctor used compresses of cabbage to inhibit gangrene in their wounds. This certainly helped make cabbage a big part of the English and Irish diet, which continues to this day.

Salad Savoy
These early medicinal uses of both the Romans and the English have since been supported by modern science. Raw cabbage cleans the waste from the stomach and upper bowels, which improves digestion and reduces constipation. Hailed as a cancer inhibitor, particularly colon cancer, cabbage also stimulates the immune system, kills harmful bacteria, soothes ulcers, and improves circulation. The outer leaves are a good source of vitamin E, making it good for the complexion. Also rich in vitamin C (raw white cabbage contains as much vitamin C as lemon juice) and sulfur, the cabbage is a health food store in a compact, edible package.

In keeping with the international theme of this feature, we have included recipes from many cultures around the world using the five most familiar and available types of cabbage: standard green & red globe, Chinese cabbage, Italian Savoy, Brussels Sprouts and Kohlrabi. But a few general cooking tips need to be related to make these options a kitchen success...

  • The best way to avoid making the whole house stink is to shred the cabbage and cook it fairly quickly. To shred cabbage, just quarter the head and remove the hard inner core, then slice each quarter into shreds no more than half and inch wide. A trick to avoiding the cabbage odor during cooking is to add an English walnut, shell and all, to the cooking water. A stalk of celery added to the cooking water may also help to reduce or eliminate that cabbage smell.

  • As for the best variety, the hard drumhead cabbages are the most readily available in U.S. markets, but most stores also carry the curly-leaved Savoy. This variety is much more tender and tasty, as well as having more visual appeal.

  • Red and purple cabbage takes longer to mature, so these types are generally not as tender as green or white varieties. Most often pickled, raw shredded red cabbage also makes a striking addition to traditional green salads.

  • When cooking with red or purple cabbage, be aware that the compound (anthocyanin) that gives the cabbage that beautiful color will also turn it blue when cooked along with any alkaline substance. Since tap water is often full of alkaline minerals such as lime, be sure to add about 1 teaspoon of an acidic agent, such as lemon juice, vinegar, or wine, to the pot when using tap water. If your red cabbage begins to take on that blue tinge, in any recipe, the addition of the acidic agent will usually bring back the original color.

So don't judge the cabbage category by the fare that the descendents of St. Patrick are most infamous for preparing. We suggest that you stick with a pint or two of Irish brew for your March 17 celebration but use one of the accompanying recipes that demonstrates that the cabbage patch is a lot larger and varied than its singular reputation.