From the monthly archives:

March 2009

Many Faces of Cabbage

by Maraya on March 12, 2009

Image courtesy New York Public Library Image Gallery

19th century botanical drawing of cabbage, courtesy New York Public Library Image Gallery

Cabbage is a practical vegetable.  It’s cheap, nutritious, and it stores well.  And because it’s so sensible, its reputation is pretty dull.  It’s a vegetable for the masses, food for hard times.  Its name conjures thoughts of sour smells and uninspired cooking.

But cabbage is a lot more interesting than you probably think.

For instance, let’s say that you don’t care for cabbage too much.  How about broccoli or cauliflower? Kale, collard greens, kholrabi, brussels sprouts, or Chinese broccoli?

If you like any of these vegetables, then you like cabbage — even if you don’t like cabbage. That’s because these vegetables are all, in fact, cabbage.

Usually, people talk about cruciferous vegetables as belonging to the same family. As in, “I see that your crisper is full of members of the cruciferous family.” I won’t quibble with anyone’s terminology, but botanically speaking, these vegetables are more than family. They’re the same species, just like you and I are the same species, and one dusky-footed woodrat is the same species as another dusky-footed woodrat.

Thousands of years of crafty cultivation turned the original wild plant — which had just a few tough leaves — into a crisper-full of facades that trick us into thinking we’re eating something different for dinner every night.  Neat, huh?

And the variety of cabbage cultivars goes way beyond what you find at most grocery stores.  Cauliflower — the enlarged flower-buds of cabbage — comes in particularly startling morphs: purple “graffiti” cauliflower, orange “cheddar,” and my personal favorite, the stunning Romanesco.

Romanesco and graffiti cauliflower, courtesy Rain Rabbit

Romanesco and graffiti cauliflower.

Romanesco cauliflower is the mathematical genius of the species, organizing its florets into a self-repeating pattern called a fractal.
The Romanesco is a vivid chartreuse, and cone-shaped. The cone is made up of a spiral of smaller cones, and each of these smaller cones is made up of a spiral of yet smaller cones. And on and on. Not so humble, these cabbages.  In fact, no vegetable exhibits a more perfect fractal pattern than this cauliflower.

How is it that cabbage can take such a variety of forms, from a tiny Brussels sprout to a giant purple lump, to a dizzying pattern of spiraling castles within castles?

Castles within castles.

Castles within castles.

Maybe the splendid variety of cabbage is just a result of time and the cumulative fiddling of farmers as they’ve plucked up mutants and bred new wonders to sell at the market.

But I have to think that there’s more to the story than that.  There must be something special about the species Brassica oleracea that gives it this propensity for shape-shifting — some gene or a certain way that the plant’s cells are arranged.  If that turns out to be true, it could revolutionize the science of food.  Someday, we could be eating blue snowpea leaves and growing apples shaped like pyramids.

In the meantime, cabbage in all its fabulous forms fills our crispers with a lot of tasty variety.  And even a standard head of cabbage can make for some deliciously inspired cooking.  This simple but classy recipe is one of my favorites:

  1. Melt a chunk of butter in a cast-iron pan or dutch oven over medium-high heat.  You can use olive oil instead, or in addition.
  2. Add some finely shredded cabbage.  Half of a head is good for two or three people.
  3. Grind in some black pepper and salt.
  4. Sauté for for about 5 minutes, stirring periodically
  5. Cover, turn the flame to low, and cook for another 5 or 6 minutes, or until tender.
  6. Enjoy!