The days of cabbage boiled to death and what I would call a dark, spicy and not very pleasant brown smell all over the house are over. For years, cabbage has been cooked in so many new ways, and it’s been served raw and been part of different food movements, such as the raw and vegan diets. But I sometimes wonder whether households in general have started using cabbage in their weekly repertoire of meals.
I still meet a lot of people who have never eaten raw kale or a quick sauté of Brussels sprouts with the sprouts still crunchy and having a green color. And I know of people who find it a challenge to buy a big head of red cabbage and carry it home to the kitchen counter, getting inspired to use it in four different meals in the upcoming week.
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Cabbage should be an important part of everyday cooking for three obvious reasons: it’s tasty, it’s healthy and it’s cheap. That ticks all the boxes for your everyday meal. If you live in the Northern hemisphere, as I do most of the time, cabbage is a better choice than salad leaves in wintertime because salad leaves taste of nothing in the winter. When I was growing up, we did not get green salad in the winter until somebody presented iceberg, which became the thing of the 1980s. Instead, we had boiled cabbage in various ways, but luckily raw cabbage in salads started to enter cooking through the vegetarian hippie movement in the 1970s.
When I cook I appreciate all cabbage, but my favorite right now is curly kale, which seems to be an ingredient in most of the things I cook. For years, I think, only my grandmother’s generation ate kale — kale boiled to death and then added to a sweet, white, vinegary sauce that did not seem very appealing. It was a favorite winter meal in the country. I talked about kale for years with other chefs. Everybody said, “You can’t use it for anything really,” and for years I was thinking about ways to use kale before I started cooking with it and using it raw in various dishes.
Versatile cabbage can be used in many recipes
You can choose from several different kinds of cabbage. There’s Brussels sprouts, which — apart from pan-fried with spices — are great raw and chopped finely to be served in a salad with apples and walnuts; or cooked al dente with chili flakes and feta; or made into purée served with steamed white fish; or boiled light and added to a mash.
Another cheaper cabbage is white cabbage, used for the famous old-fashioned dish called Brown Cabbage, where you brown the white cabbage in sugar and cook it slowly with slices of pork belly together with a lot of spices for hours until it is brown and very soft. It is a dish cooked mostly in the country and by older generations, and it is still very popular in Germany. Cooking it once a year seems sufficient, if you ask me. Instead I prefer pan-fried big leafs of white cabbage in butter and sprinkled with a bit of nutmeg. That is a more modern way to eat cabbage.
But white cabbage is also great to use in salads, as a substitute for salad leaves. It can also be used in Asian-style cabbage dolmers: lots of shredded root vegetables with ginger, chili and chopped cashew nuts rolled in big, boiled white cabbage leaves and pan-fried in oil. In the summertime the pointed cabbage can be used the same way; it has a gentler and a bit nuttier flavor. In Denmark you can now get a red pointed cabbage, which you cut into long wedges and pan-fry in butter — it’s delicious.
Red cabbage is great boiled with sugar, vinegar and lots of spices, and it is a favorite for Christmas in Scandinavia. It can alternatively be sautéed with chili in a pan for 10 minutes and then drizzled with lime and sprinkled with chopped fresh coriander. The difference between the cabbage cooked for a long time and a quick stir-fry, apart from the texture, is the taste: The bitterness of red cabbage disappears when cooked for quite a while.
My last cabbage is savoy cabbage, which is used a lot in France. It works very well with Asian flavors. If eaten raw, it has to be really finely chopped and is great with grapes and a strong Dijon mustard dressing. In Scandinavia, the classic way is to eat it with fish.
Cooking with cabbage has endless possibilities and can become part of any world cuisine or mix of flavors. Just buy a big head of cabbage and cut it into pieces, What you don’t use you can save in the fridge and use day to day in your cooking.
This salad is great for lunch or with lamb, chicken or vegetarian pie.
Red Cabbage and Kale Salad With a Ginger Dressing
For the salad:
½ pound red cabbage
¼ pound curly kale
¼ cup cashew nuts
For the dressing:
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or other oil with neutral taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Finely chop the red cabbage and kale and in a bowl.
2. Roast the cashew nuts on a dry frying pan until light brown, and let cool. After nuts cool, chop and add to the mixed cabbage.
3. Mix all the ingredients for the dressing. Just before serving, mix the dressing with the cabbage salad, season with salt and pepper and serve right away.
Top photo: Red cabbage and kale salad. Credit: Trine Hahnemann