Rethinking the cabbage
The term “cabbage” may conjure images of bleak, Eastern-bloc preparations, but in reality it is a succulent, versatile vegetable that can warm even the coldest wintertime heart. Cabbage can be stored in a root cellar or refrigerator for several months, and may even be overwintered in the field in mild climates. Its dense head and insulating layers of leaves protect it from the ravages of frost and moisture, and farmers will say that cabbage tastes sweeter when left in the ground to “get some frost on it.” One head of cabbage provides an astonishing amount of fodder, making it an economical way to feed a group (it’s no wonder that coleslaw is the perennial accompaniment to pork barbecue).
Many varieties of cabbage can be grown in Central Virginia, ranging from the flower-like, puckered Savoy to the dense rectangular Napa, and including the smallish, triangular “Early Jersey Wakefield” that was and is planted at Monticello. Slice any cabbage in half through the stem (including the Brussels sprout, itself just a miniaturized cabbage) and you’ll find the Cabbage Goddess, a stylized human form among the core and leaves of the vegetable.
Lacto-fermentation: Everything old is new again
Many cuisines depend upon fermented foods to aid in the digestion of meat and to round out the lean wintertime table. Unlike the modern commercial pickle, which relies on super-acidity for bacteria control, and corn syrup to balance the acidity, seasonal vegetables and fruits have traditionally been preserved through the process of lacto-fermentation.
This time-honored craft begins with fresh vegetables and fruits to which a short-term preserving agent is added—most often whey or salt. While the “bad,” or putrefying, bacteria are held at bay for a few days, lactobacilli bacteria convert starches and sugars into lactic acid, which itself is a preservative and flavoring agent. Lacto-fermented vegetables have a mellow tanginess and a lively mouth feel; indeed, the lactobacilli culture remains viable, and is a valuable digestive aid and addition to our intestinal flora. To delve into the world of lacto-fermentation at home, check out Nourishing Traditions (Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig) or Wild Fermentation (Sandor Katz).
Of all the foods that are pickled the world over, cabbage may be the most universal. Koreans prepare mounds of paechu kimchi in the autumn, and then serve the tangy, chili-spiked condiment throughout the year. Germanic cultures pickle and ferment cabbage into sauerkraut to accompany hearty wintertime fare like rolladen and spiced sausages (or wursts). Mexican “Chiles en Vinagre” is considered a quick pickle; it is an herbed, marinated coleslaw that grows more succulent day by day.
Cabbage around the world
Red or green cabbage
Slice and stovetop-braise with chicken or goose fat, onion, and white vinegar or beer. Season with bay leaf, caraway and clove. Serve with beef rolladen or veal.
Napa cabbage or green cabbage
“Chiles en Vinagre”: Slice thin, mix with shredded carrot and red onion, and marinate for several days in a mixture of canned sliced jalapeno peppers, white vinegar and thyme. Serve with a dollop of crema alongside pupusas, sopes or cooked into a quesadilla.
Quarter and stovetop-braise (on the core) in tomato and beef Bolognese sauce. Season with rosemary or sage, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Serve with polenta or pasta.
Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage (Jefferson heritage variety)
Slice and stovetop-braise with chopped bacon, chopped apple, apple cider and red wine vinegar. Season with thyme or savory. Serve with roast chicken and roast pork.