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Cabbage 101

Martha Stewart Living, January 2010

Peel back the waxy outer leaves of a cabbage and a world of possibilities opens. Cabbage is the multifaceted vegetable that, depending on how you cook it (or don't), morphs effortlessly from winter comfort food to summer coleslaw. 

Cabbage is as happy in a casserole as it is atop a hot dog or in a stir-fry. And if you're daring enough to experiment, those leaves will also excite the palate.

Recipes
Braised Red Cabbage with Caramelized Onion and Cider

Steamed Green Cabbage with Halibut Filet

Chinese Cabbage Stir-Fry with Rice Noodles, Pork, and Cilantro

Shredded Napa Cabbage Salad with Radishes, Golden Raisins, and Dijon Dressing

Stuffed Savoy Cabbage with Beef, Pork, and Rice in a Spicy Tomato Sauce

Roasted Green Cabbage Wedges with Olive Oil and Lemon

Cabbage seeds are available from Johnny's Selected Seeds.

Cabbage actually refers to several different vegetables, which can be green, reddish-purple, or white; have round or conical shapes; and sport smooth leaves or crinkly ruffles. 

Many of the heads, including familiar green and red field cabbages, belong to Brassica oleracea, which also encompasses such nutritional heavy hitters as broccoli, kale, and collard greens. Chinese cabbages, including napa (and even bok choy, which is considered a cabbage), are a different species, Brassica rapa. Recipes often call for a particular cabbage, but similar typesgreen and Savoy, for example -- can usually be used interchangeably.

Cabbages of all kinds are compact workhorses, not just culinarily but nutritionally. Green and white cabbages may protect against stomach ulcers, and they contain compounds that could help prevent breast, bladder, and lung cancers. Red cabbages are especially high in polyphenols, which protect brain cells against proteins that can cause Alzheimers disease, according to researchers at Cornell University. The leafy vegetables are rich in the antioxidant vitamin C and are a respectable source of beta-carotene, says Susan Kraus, a registered dietitian in Hackensack, New Jersey.

In addition to being some of the most virtuous vegetables, cabbages are also affordable and plentiful year-round. Ever adaptable, cabbage grows in temperate climates from California to New York and is abundant in China, India, and Russia.

Sometimes crunchy, other times tender, cabbage also has the ability to take on the flavors of surrounding meats, herbs, and spices. Tossed with mustard, vinegar, and peppery radishes, its uplifting in the dead of winter. Roasted with olive oil and sprinkled with lemon juice, it becomes a speedy side dish. And stuffed with ground beef, pork, and rice, it's the hearty meal you prepare on a cold afternoon. The options are limitless. So if you've resolved to eat better this year, enjoy cabbage -- again and again.

Cabbages: A Glossary
1. Savoy 'Alcosa' 
Savoys have a more delicate flavor than basic green cabbages, and many cooks like to use them in recipes that call for green cabbage. The cabbages also stand out for their distinctive nubby leaves, which hang a bit loosely from the head. Because the leaves are broad, they work well as wrappers for ground meat and other stuffings.

2. Napa 'Bilko' 
Napa cabbages are Chinese cabbages, but their name comes from a Japanese word meaning "greens." There are several varieties of napa, some pale and compact, others green and leafy. Sturdy ones, like this 'Bilko,' are able to stand up to the high heat of a wok. Other names you might see in markets: Chinese cabbage, celery cabbage, wong bok, and Peking cabbage.

3. Green (Mini Pointed) 'Cara Flex' 
If you find one of these small pointed varieties at a farmers' market, you can use it in any dish that calls for green cabbage.

4. Napa 'Minuet' 
More-tender napa cabbages, such as this 'Minuet,' have an almost lettucelike quality. They are good candidates for slaws (dress them just before eating so they stay crisp). Napa cabbages have a more delicate flavor than the usual green cabbages.

5. Green 'Farao' 
Standard green cabbage lends itself to a variety of preparations, including steaming, roasting, sauteeing, and creaming. (Prolonged boiling, however, yields a sulfuric taste and smell.) Finely shredded, it can be served raw in coleslaws.

6. Red (Mini) 'Super Red 80' 
Red cabbages -- purple, really -- are crunchy and mildly peppery. They're delicious cooked, or chopped raw for salads and slaws. Mini varieties, such as this one, weigh just a couple of pounds. The petite heads, which appear at farmers' markets, are good for small servings.