Chefs praise cabbage. They embrace its sweetness. They delight in its crunch in raw slaws and its melting smoothness in cold-weather braises.
More often than not, their customers do not share this love.
"I personally love cabbage," said Floyd Cardoz, who was the executive chef of Tabla in Manhattan until it closed last month. He offered lightly caramelized cabbage wedges that had been spiced with cloves, black mustard seeds, shallots, garlic, and ginger. Cardoz brought out the sweetness of the cabbage, and in the plating of it, its beauty. But few people ordered it.
Cabbage is often an unloved, homely vegetable. It's smelly. It's cheap. It's the food of the poor. But those who can get past this initial aversion know it as one of winter's quiet overachievers.
The winter cabbage is a "storage cabbage," said Joe O'Brien, the owner of Healthway Farms in Highland, N.Y., who sells red and green cabbages. "They're bred for flavor, and picked in the fall," he said. "These are harder and more dense than summer cabbages, which are softer."
The cabbage is also a sturdy ball of healthfulness, since it is high in vitamin C and in dietary fiber. It has also been linked to protection against cancer.
All those virtues do not make it an easier sell. Marcus Samuelsson, the chef and an owner of Red Rooster Harlem, said, "Cabbage always reminds people of poverty, when people are limited by food." Optimistically, he suggested that this may be changing. "We've come so far with food, we've gone full circle; that the fried chicken, the meatballs, are comfort food," he said. "And cabbage is also comfort food."
Zoe Feigenbaum, executive chef at The National, says cabbage's ubiquity hurts its reputation. "Because it's so plentiful and accessible and cheap, people seek things that are more rare and glamorous, like artichokes, morels, and kabocha squash," she said.
At the restaurant, she pays homage to her late grandmother, Beth Feigenbaum, who served her stuffed cabbage with a sweet-and-sour sauce made of tomatoes, brown sugar, lemon juice, raisins, tomatoes, and ketchup. Feigenbaum transforms her grandmother's sauce into a cabbage soup with a deeply traditional Jewish flavor.
Because the United States does not have a strong cabbage culture, "people don't recognize its potential," Feigenbaum said. "But as far as my Jewish family is concerned, cabbage soup is a year-round delight."
1 1/2pounds savoy cabbage
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon canola oil
2 whole cloves
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
5 bay leaves
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons peeled, julienned fresh ginger
1/2 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped seeded jalapeno pepper
1 cup chopped fresh or canned tomato
1/2cups vegetable broth
Cut cabbage into 6 to 8 wedges, with the widest part no more than 2 inches, leaving the core intact so the wedges stay together while cooking. Place a heavy skillet, large enough to hold wedges fairly snugly, over medium heat. Add cup oil and heat until it shimmers. Add the cabbage, and cook, turning once, until browned on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes a side. Transfer to a plate, and set aside.
Reduce heat to medium-low, add remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and heat until it shimmers. Add cloves, mustard seeds, cilantro, bay leaves, shallot, and garlic, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add ginger, turmeric, 1 tablespoon jalapeno, tomato, and broth. Season with salt to taste. If desired, add more jalapeno to taste.
Increase heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Add cabbage, fitting it tightly together in the bottom of the pot. Cover, reduce heat to medium, and braise cabbage until tender, about 10 minutes, turning it once halfway through cooking. Add cilantro and cook 1 minute more. Remove and discard cloves and bay leaves. If desired, serve with rice.
Yield: 3 servings.
Source: Adapted from Floyd Cardoz