Even this deep into winter, I still crave the flavors coaxed from winter vegetables. Root vegetables, such as turnips and parsnips, easily transform into roasted sides, soups and mashes. Potatoes offer exquisite comfort in any form. Cabbage, one of the world’s most versatile vegetables, single-handedly eliminates boredom in the kitchen and at the table.
A recent trip to a large supermarket revealed more than a half-dozen types of cabbage — from simple tight green heads to burgundy wine-colored orbs, to curly edged savoy to the oblong head of pale napa cabbage. To say nothing of its family members including Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, turnips, radishes, broccoli and cauliflower. The cruciferous family also includes such wonders as arugula, bok choy and watercress.
When I plopped down an overflowing shopping bag, my husband flinched. He questioned the number of heads lined up on the counter and my ability to make something a non-cabbage-lover would enjoy. As well as pleasant aromas to fill a house we rarely leave. Challenge accepted.
Where to start? A skillet full of shredded green cabbage sauteed with bacon and onions always reminds me of a ski trip with a chef friend; her dish is now a family standard. My paternal grandmother’s red cabbage, cooked with chopped apple, sugar, vinegar and raisins, makes me sentimental for large family gatherings. Ditto for her labor-intensive cabbage strudel. Mushroom and sauerkraut pierogi, made by our babysitter, proved a hit with our kids when they were young.
This winter, I’m looking for big, bold flavors to perk up spirits. A cabbage and red chile stir-fry I enjoy often during business lunches at a Szechwan restaurant in Houston comes to mind. Tongue-tingling Szechwan peppercorns and lots of hot chile oil flow over very crunchy cabbage leaves.
At home, I re-create the dish with the lacy-edged savoy cabbage and the Chinese condiment known as spicy chile crunch (or spicy chile crips). I serve the spicy cabbage as a side to roast chicken and as a meatless main over steaming hot jasmine rice topped with plenty of roasted peanuts.
Our friends from Mielec, Poland, introduced us to bigos, a hearty, tangy, satisfying dish suited for cold winter nights. Some version of this pork and cabbage stew is enjoyed throughout Poland, where it is considered the national dish.
Dried mushrooms and tomato paste (or, often, dried plums) add to the dish’s umami flavor. That is the taste sensation that keeps us coming back for more — kind of like a cheesy snack cracker. It’s one reason I love the dish — that and the sauerkraut. Yes, sauerkraut. Set judgment aside. The long, slow cooking and the juices from browned pork, render the kraut and the fresh cabbage, into melted goodness.
Take time to source sauerkraut naturally fermented simply with salt — not vinegar and certainly not laced with preservatives. I avoid canned sauerkraut because it tends to be mushy and opt instead for refrigerated versions, such as Bubbies. There are plenty of choices these days due to sauerkraut’s popularity with raw and probiotic fans, including Farmhouse Culture, Cleveland Kraut and Cultured Love. Trader Joe’s has a refrigerated sauerkraut with sliced pickles in it that is delicious in the recipe that follows.
At home, give the sauerkraut a taste and rinse it under cold running water if it is too salty or tangy for you. Seasoned sauerkraut, purchased from a delicatessen counter, works well in the stew.
My rendition of the classic Polish stew varies depending on what’s on hand — sometimes I skip the sauerkraut and use all fresh cabbage. Just as often, I substitute smoked chicken for the smoked pork. On occasion, lean, fully-cooked chicken sausages stand in for rich kielbasa. Both the slow-cooker version and the oven version reheat beautifully. Serve the stew with hearty rye bread or a mound of buttery potatoes or noodles.
Cabbage is low in calories and has high nutritional value, including vitamin C and K and glutamine (an amino acid with anti-inflammatory properties). It’s also versatile enough to prevent kitchen boredom for the cook as well as for her eaters — even the doubting husband.