The many ways I love Mon Petit Chou
I love cabbage.
And I’m not talking about Savoy cabbage, the frilly version that’s been tarted up with a first name hinting of royalty. Or the other members of the Brassica oleracea family, including the various kales and collards, broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, deliciously gorgeous as they are. Or the compelling relatives from central Asia, original home of turnips, broccoli rabe, bok choy, tatsoi, and mizuna, all part of the Brassica rapa clan.
No, my heart belongs to the ordinary, everyday cabbage, its pale green leaves tightly bound into a waxy ball, the humble heads tucked coyly away in the corner of the produce section. It’s cheap, reliable, and flexible; who wouldn’t fall in love?
It doesn’t hurt that cabbage is good for me, lends itself to last-minute cooking, doesn’t cost much, and grows, relatively speaking, in my own backyard.
Humankind’s relationship with Brassica started early. In his encyclopedic work Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World, Waverley Root relates one ancient Greek belief of its origins: Dionysus, the god of wine, caught Lycurgus, the Edonian king, pulling up grapevines. While awaiting punishment, the king wept, and from his tears sprang cabbages.
"My heart belongs to the ordinary, everyday cabbage. It’s cheap, reliable, and flexible; who wouldn’t fall in love?"
An alternate myth has Jupiter sweating as he tries to explain contradictory oracles, and the cabbages sprout from his perspiration. Those ancient Greeks might’ve been onto something. But given my devotion it seems more likely that Eros, the god of love, was involved.
Wild cabbages, resembling kale more than my beloved green globes, grew along the Mediterranean coast, and according to Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking, the “salty, sunny habitat accounts for the thick, succulent, waxy leaves” that make cabbages so hardy. Domesticated about 2,500 years ago, cabbage spread across Europe.
Because it tolerates cold weather, cabbage became an important staple farther north, and we typically associate it with the hearty cuisines of climes damp and gray.
But the Romans, like me, loved cabbage, and they’re probably responsible for the selective cultivation that resulted in so many disparate variations. By encouraging an existing tendency for the curling leaves to form more tightly packed bunches, those early Italian farmers created today’s well-known “heading cabbages.” Our name for these derives from the colloquial French word for head, caboche.
Vegetable lore tells us that the Italian Catherine de’ Medici brought cabbage to France when she married fellow 14-year-old Henri de Valois, the Duke of Orleans and, eventually, King Henry II. History is silent as to whether she called him mon petit chou, or “my little cabbage.” But the endearment reflects the continuing French love of cabbage, from the choucroute of Alsace to the thick stew called gabure in the south.
Early cabbage fanciers also associated it with good health. Egyptians ate it with vinegar to prevent hangovers, Greeks dribbled cabbage juice into sore eyes, and Romans packed aching muscles with cabbage poultices. Herbalists today recommend cabbage for its anti-inflammatory effects, telling breastfeeding mothers to tuck a few bruised leaves into their bras for relief. It’s got lots of vitamins A, B, C, and E, and a study at Georgetown University showed how phytochemicals in cabbage might reduce cancer risks.
However, those same phytochemicals provide the frequently noted boardinghouse smell of overcooked cabbage, something that bothers others much more than it bothers me. Maybe I’m blinded, in an olfactory sense, by love, suffering from a cabbage-passion-induced anosmia. Or perhaps my approach to cooking mon petit chou reduces the breakdown of glucosinolates, the sulfur-containing compounds released when cabbage is boiled too long.
More likely, it’s the variety of cabbage. Brussels sprouts contain more of the healthful and stinky compounds than any of the other Brassicas. Heading cabbages, with their residual sugars, offer a sweeter love.
Farmers here in the Pacific Northwest harvest cabbage from mid-July through the end of December. Properly stored, it keeps for up to six months, so it’s theoretically possible to eat local cabbage all year. Prices vary, with conventionally grown cabbage usually less than a dollar per pound, organic about half again as much. Just before Christmas I bought an enormous head at a farmers’ market for only two dollars.
So, how do I love cabbage? Let me count the ways.
1) I love it cooked in a little olive oil with onion.
2) Cabbage loves pork, and I love them together. Start with a little diced bacon, then sauté the onions and cabbage in the smoky fat. A dollop of crème fraîche makes both of these simple dishes unctuous and rich.
3) A bed of shredded cabbage roasted under a chicken steals my heart.
4) I love how the cabbage I add to my feeling-a-cold-coming chicken soup gives it enough substance to fill me up.
5) I’m crazy for coleslaw, the green salad I turn to when winter’s lettuce comes wilted from a long truck ride north and again when the hot summer sun makes my garden’s leaves bolt and turn bitter.
6) Je t’aime, choucroute braisée à l’Alsacienne: Julia Child kindled a new passion for sauerkraut by teaching me to simmer it slowly for hours in crisp white wine.
7) Marcella Hazan makes me cry, “cavolo sofegao, come sei bella,” with her Venetian-style smothered cabbage, the slow-cooked leaves transformed with a splash of vinegar.
8) Te amo cocido, tambien. While these one-pot Spanish stews often call for whole chickens, pigs’ trotters, veal shanks, and a garden’s worth of vegetables, I make a simple version with just garbanzos, potatoes, and cabbage.
9) Lately I’ve become fond of fermented cabbage, not quite sauerkraut, but chopped, mixed with a little salt, and left out overnight. I get lonely if it’s not waiting for me at home.
Cabbage love comes in many other forms, and though the steady routine of our long-term relationship provides familiar comfort, I don’t want it to get stale. So I keep searching for new outlets for my passion, different ways to express my feelings, unexplored culinary territory where I can say, again and again, I love cabbage.