Of Cabbages And Cocktails
For weeks now I have been trying to finish this post about cabbage with no success.
Part of me feared that no matter how much I write, it won't do justice to this magnificent vegetable. Almost every culture and cuisine has beloved cabbage recipes. Surely I would leave something important out.
Perhaps the other part of me worried that no one else would be as interested in cabbage as me.
I read these first few thoughts to my son, Sam, and he laughed hysterically. Perhaps I am understating others lack of interest in cabbage.
For many, cabbage conjures memories of smelly, overcooked mushiness, Dickensian boarding schools, bland and boring Puritanesque dinners, and the nightmare inducing cabbage soup diet.
At one point during quarantine, my sons, Sam and Max, decided that they would do a cabbage soup fast. In case you didn’t know, fasting is a thing for millennials. Fasting, ice baths and Wim Hof breathing.
For the ice baths and Wim Hof breathing, you can check out “The Goop Lab” on Netflix. Either that or note the ten pound bag of ice that one of my sons has chilling the water in my upstairs bathtub. Despite repeated requests, I have refused to purchase a chest freezer for said son to bathe in.
While down below, in the kitchen, a ginormous pot of cabbage soup turned a sickly shade of violet, due to the purple cabbage the boys have thrown into the pot.
Thankfully, their soup diet (technically not a fast) only lasted a few days. Sadly, the majority of the purple soup ended up in the disposal.
Growing up, cabbage in our home meant Irish style boiled cabbage and potatoes, with plenty of salt and butter. It also meant playing cabbage ball – a type of gloveless softball originating in New Orleans. It utilized a ball the size of a cabbage.
Smothered cabbage was also found as a dish at local restaurants. I remember reading the signs advertising “smothered cabbage” as the special of the day and giggling. Such a silly sounding name.
Smothering is a Cajun and Creole technique, involving cooking something low and slow with some type of liquid. It is basically stove-top braising, and often involves one or two types of meat such as ham or pork chops.
Of late my favorite braised dish is cabbage cooked in butter with salt and pepper. Once it is tender and caramelized, you squeeze some fresh lemon juice on it. So good.
As a young singe woman, after late night dates at the Limelight in New York City, my future husband, Marty and I would end up at the deli. There we were served half-sour pickles and a bowl of health salad as soon as we sat down.
Health salad is an iconic deli staple, and it is simply cabbage, carrots, red and green peppers tossed with oil and vinegar based dressing. A little sugar is usually added resulting in a lightly pickled taste.
Once married, my mother-in-law, Dorothy, introduced me to her garbage salad. “Garbage” in this instance referred to the fact that her salad originated when she threw a bunch of random things together to make a dish.
Dorothy’s garbage salad contained diced red cabbage, green cabbage, scallions, parsley and drained and rinsed chickpeas or beans. It was doused in a liberal amount of Viva Italian dressing, and then left to soak. It became a deliciously crunchy and fatty concoction that could serve as a quick meal if the cupboards were bare or we were too lazy to use the stove or oven.
Over time, I substituted the Viva Italian dressing for a combination of fresh lemon juice, oil, salt, pepper, garlic and onion powder. Marty and my kids loved it, so I made it often with lunch or dinner.
Like many of the foods I have cooked and loved, I stopped making it as time passed. It got lost.
During quarantine, I brought it back. “Garbage salad!” my daughter, Laura, exclaimed when we were finally able to have dinner together again. “I love this stuff.” She began to request that I make it for her every week.
Of all of the things we had difficulty getting during quarantine, cabbages weren’t one of them. Cheap and plentiful, cabbages also last a long, long time in your fridge.
Desperately in need of a grocery store visit, I was recently able to put shopping off for a day by recalling okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake made with cabbage and eggs.
My girlfriends and I first had it at Xiao Bao Biscuit, a much lauded Charleston Asian Fusion restaurant. Housed in a former gas station, the décor is as funky and bright as the food is fantastic.
Okonomiyaki is the signature dish at Xiao Bao Biscuit, and according to the owners, “It will change your life.”
Prepared with shredded cabbage, kale, carrots and scallions, the dish is then drizzled with a topping of Japanese mayonnaise and sriracha. For a few extra dollars you can top it with “pork dust.” It is a revelation.
My okonomiyaki was not as pretty as Xiao Bao Biscuits, but Max, Sam and I scarfed it up just the same. It is simple, easy to make, inexpensive and crave-worthy.
Not long after I was staring once again at a pretty bare refrigerator. Finding a few chicken fingers, some fresh dill, a wedge of cabbage and buttermilk, I threw together a light and refreshing salad that we all loved.
One would think that these dishes alone would give me the kick in the pants I needed to finish this post. Nope. I still felt like something was missing.
Google came to my rescue. “Cabbage could help fight COVID-19, study finds.”
Wow, I thought. While I think most of us are aware that cabbage is a nutrient dense vegetable, I, for one, didn’t know that it is also loaded with chemicals that help to ease the swelling in your tissues – inflammation.
Inflammation is linked to a host of diseases such as heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
Diabetes, we have been told, is one of the huge risk factors for COVID-19. Made sense that there could be some kind of link.
While the article I read sounded promising, I had to question the source. It was The New York Post.
Known for their outrageous headlines such as, "Headless body in topless bar," (Self-explanatory) and "Enjoy a footlong in jail," (about Jared, Subway restaurant chain’s former spokesman) I wondered if the article had any scientific validity.
I found another source here:
Researchers in Europe hypothesized that “a high intake of antioxidant rich Brassica vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and head cabbage (white, red and savoy cabbage) might be associated with the low COVID-19 mortality seen in some countries.”
According to the article, cucumbers and fermented foods may also have the same effect.
As I continued to research cabbage, I learned some other cool things.
Art and literature have a long history of cabbage worship, according to Alexandra Harris, author of Romantic Moderns. While researching the book, she found that the both common and extraordinary cabbage appeared time and time again.
According to an article she wrote for The Guardian, “The Romans venerated the life-giving properties of cabbage such that a whole branch of medicine grew up around it. Cabbage leaves were placed on wounds; cabbage juice was mixed with honey to salve the eyes. Above all, cabbage protected against the effects of alcohol. If eaten in great quantities before a feast, there would be no hangover. The cabbage, then, was the ancient license for excess.”
If you have the time, check out her article. It’s really interesting:
Other research informed that cabbage in Chinese translates to "bai cai," while money is pronounced "cai." It is due to these like sounds that cabbage became a symbol for wealth or money.
Cabbage is so venerated in China that in recent time cities such as Shandong and Handan have erected giant cabbage statues.
Shandong first made history by building a cabbage statue that was 9 meters tall. Not to be outdone, Handan erected one that is 20 meters tall and weighs 12 tons. They are both tourist attractions and prime spots for social media pictures.
The Chinese also believed that cabbage was a cure for baldness. Recently, scientists have postulated that kimchi, Korean fermented cabbage, could cure baldness.
The Greeks believed that cabbage sprang forth from the sweat of Zeus, their chief god. He worked himself into this sweat while thinking of an explanation for two conflicting prophecies.
Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale, in fact, are all descendants of the original wild cabbage plant, sea cabbage.
Originally headless (but not found at topless bars), the first cabbages with heads appeared sometime in the first century BC.
The noxious smell that can sometimes be found when cabbage is cooking comes from sulphur compounds, not, in fact, the sweat of Zeus.
Dorothy Pathak, professor of epidemiology at Michigan State University and the University of New Mexico, did a study finding that “Polish immigrants in the United States who ate a lot of cabbage when they were 12 or 13 years old— more than three servings a week— had a breast cancer risk about 70 percent lower than those who ate little cabbage during their adolescence and adulthood.”
I could go on and on. Suffice is to say that while cabbage is super healthy, it may or may not be a remedy or prevention for baldness, drunkedness, cancer and COVID-19.
What can’t be denied, however, is that it is cheap, long-lasting, readily available and delicious. If memories of cabbage in your childhood make you shudder, it’s time to throw out that playbook and explore the cornucopia of cabbage recipes at your fingertips.
If you don’t feel like cooking, pick up a jar of sauerkraut, some kimchi or a jar of pickled red cabbage.
My friend, Gail, loves serving the pickled red cabbage with sausages. It reminds her of the Eastern European river cruise she enjoyed with her boyfriend, Don.
Many of us, me included, are missing traveling now. This time of year I would normally be exploring someplace new with friends and family.
In the absence of seeing somewhere new, I have been creating new dishes at home. With my newfound cabbage knowledge, I am now crafting my daily cocktails without guilt. I am not using my cabbage consumption as a license to excess - simply a license to create a little more.
Here are some recipes and links to get you started on your own cabbage journey:
*Coleslaws: So many types of slaws can be made from cabbage. Start with either whole cabbage or bagged coleslaw mix. Add some type of fat, such as mayonnaise, acid, salt and pepper or sugar.
Growing up my grandma made coleslaw with shredded white cabbage, shredded carrots, salt, pepper, mayonnaise and vinegar. It was tangy and delicious.
My mother-in-law’s coleslaw contained white cabbage, carrots, mayonnaise, sugar and lemon juice.
I have successfully substituted Truvia for sugar, when preparing the sweet slaw for diabetics or people on the keto diet.
Sometimes I use lime juice instead of lemon. I have also made slaws with flavored oils as my fat, such as lemon or blood orange olive oil. Basil oil works beautifully, too.
Poppy seeds, chopped pineapple and sliced almonds are fabulous mix-ins for the sweet slaw.
Celery seeds mixed in add a pretty and tasty component.
Consider fresh or dried ginger, along with a few drops of sesame oil and/or sesame seeds for an Asian flair.
Any kind of chopped nuts work well here, too. I recently served the sweet slaw with chopped pecans at Sam’s birthday gathering. Everyone loved it.
Get creative and have fun with your slaws. Mix and match the fat to acid ratio until it suits your palate. Begin with just a little cabbage and veggie mixture, then play around until you see what combinations you like the best.
Leftover Chicken Cabbage Salad
3 cups cabbage
3 tablespoons buttermilk dill dressing
3 chicken fingers, diced, or 1 cup diced chicken
Mix ingredients together. Salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate for 30 minutes beforehand for best taste.
Buttermilk Dill Dressing
1 tablespoon sour cream
3 tablespoons mayonaise
1/4 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons diced dill
1/8 teaspoon onion powder
1/8 teaspoon Granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon Salt
1/8 teaspoon Pepper
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Store in a closed container in the refrigerator.
Below are links to more cabbage recipes for you to try. The articles from the cooking magazines are compilations of cabbage recipes.
Okonomiyaki – Here is the recipe for the version I recently made.
Egg Roll In A Bowl – When I was a young flight attendant, I often worked flights to St. Martin and back in the same day. My airline provided no food for flight attendants. We used to rush off of the plane to buy crispy, hot eggrolls at the St. Martin airport. There was a takeout place that also served a garlic-laden vegetarian sandwich that we loved as well. It was French bread piled high with shredded cabbages, lettuce and tomato, bathed in their creamy garlic dressing. I have tried many times to duplicate it, with little success.
Recipes for egg roll in a bowl exploded all over the internet with the popular keto diet. This can be made with ground beef, turkey, chicken or even vegan crumbles. It’s an easy and healthy one pot dinner.
Unstuffed Cabbage – I can’t visit my niece, Sommer’s house without her requesting that I make a double batch of this recipe. She loves it that much.
Corned Beef and Cabbage – This is a super easy crockpot recipe. I have made it on many St. Patrick’s Days.
Health Salad (Deli)
Cabbage and Collard Greens
Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage
Bon Appetit Article
Cooking Light Article