From the Ground Up: It’s cabbage season
by Ann M. Evans & Georganne Brennan
Cabbages, which come in a multitude of shapes and sizes, are one of the most versatile vegetables in a cook’s repertoire, and can be used throughout the winter in a variety of different ways, as you can see from a winter tour of the farmers’ market, where they abound this time of year.
Cabbages can be divided into Asian cabbages and western cabbages, which influences, but not necessarily determines, how they are used culinarily. The Asian cabbages include the open, leafy types like flowering white cabbage, flat cabbages, the long, tightly headed Michili cabbage, and the barrel-shaped Napa cabbage, as well as the various white stemmed cabbages with spoon-shaped, green leaves, called bok choy or pak choy. Their flavors range from the mild and sweet Napa cabbage to the mustardy Michili.
The majority of Western cabbages are tightly headed and may be flat, conical, or round, and the leaves smooth, or ruffled. The Savoy types have ruffled leaves and slightly looser heads. The Western cabbages range in color from deep purplish red to chartreuse green, with multiple hues of greens in between.
The Savoy cabbages, which are one of our favorites for their flavor and crinkled appearance, are particularly popular in Italy. They are perhaps the mildest and sweetest of all the cabbages, with tender, bright green leaves. In Italian cooking they are shredded for salads, tossed with anchovies and lemon juice, and braised with potatoes and pancetta or sausage.
In France, the Savoys are shredded and cooked into a stovetop gratin with cream and butter. Throughout Europe, cabbage heads are hollowed out, and then filled with a savory stuffing to make a main dish. Cabbage leaves of all kinds are used for wrapping a variety of meats, vegetables or grains and then sauced and baked.
Cabbage is essential for the quintessential American cole slaw, for taco fish toppings and other Mexican salads. Simplest of all, cabbage is steamed, sautéed, or boiled and served as a side dish. Asian cabbages are typically used in stir-frys, soups, and salads.
Both Asian cabbages and Western cabbages are fermented, with Korean Kim Chee and sauerkraut being the best known. Kim Chee, a pickled vegetable dish, is made with a number of different vegetables, among them Napa cabbage. Sauerkraut, which is a staple of Europe from Alsace-Lorraine in France east through Russia, is best made from large, dense cabbage heads. Sauerkraut is the essential component to a choucroute garnie, the famous dish of Alsace, composed of sauerkraut cooked with sausages, smoked meats, and other elements to make a festive serving. Choucroute garnie exists in many different forms, including one where Champagne and salmon are key ingredients.
Specific varieties of cabbages for sauerkraut have been developed, some of them weighing up to 20 pounds or more. Ann and I love making our own, homemade sauerkraut. The taste is entirely different than commercially available sauerkraut, which has been cooked and sterilized. Now is a good time of year to make sauerkraut because the cabbages are at their prime, mature, crisp and full of the moisture essential for the brining process.
Look for all kinds of cabbages, both Asian and Western at the farmers’ market now through March. These locally grown cabbages will have a high moisture content, as they have been freshly harvested, not kept in storage, making them best for sauerkraut. If you are tempted to grow your own for next winter, late summer is the best planting time.
Sauerkraut is made by the wild fermentation of cabbage in the absence of oxygen. A 2 to 3 percent salt solution limits the bacteria to just desirable strains that can survive during the fermentation. The fermentation yields lactic acid, which gives sauerkraut its characteristic flavor and texture.
Dutch flat cabbage types, if you can find them, are especially good for sauerkraut because bigger heads are preferred for sauerkraut and the round, cannon-ball type heads tend to crack when then get big.
Quarter and core five pounds or more of cabbage and thinly slice it. Five pounds of cabbage will need about three tablespoons of coarse sea salt or pickling salt.
Put the cabbage in a clean ceramic crock or plastic bucket in layers, alternating with the salt. Mix each layer and press it firmly into the container. Pound with a mortar or clean wood block until the cabbage is covered by a thin layer of juice. More liquid will appear as the salt draws out the moisture. If, at the end of the process, there isn’t enough moisture to cover the cabbage, make a brine using 1 and one-half tablespoons salt per quart of water, bring to a boil and cool it, then add enough to cover the cabbage.
Invert a plate on top of the cabbage, then add enough weight, such as a clean brick or stones, to holding the plate and cabbage below the surface of the liquid. Cover the crock or bucket with cheesecloth or kitchen towel to keep out fruit flies and foreign matter.
Keep in a location between 60º and 75º F. Between 70º and 75º the fermentation will take three to four weeks and lower temperatures will take longer.
Two to three times a week, skim off the foam as it appears, rinse the plate, and replace it. When the bubbling ceases and the fermentation is finished, the cabbage will have been transformed into raw sauerkraut. It can be eaten as is, or stored in the refrigerator, covered in its brine, for up to a month. To cook, first drain, then rinse off the salt.
Cooking raw sauerkraut
Three pounds raw sauerkraut
Two ounces lard, duck or goose fat
One onion, chopped
One clove garlic, minced
Ten juniper berries
Two whole cloves
Six black peppercorns
One bay leaf
One-third cup Riesling wine
One-half cup water
One-half teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 325º F.
Rinse the sauerkraut several times in cold water to remove the brine. Drain and pat dry. In a deep pot, melt the lard or fat over low heat. When it has melted, increase the heat to medium, add the onion and sauté until translucent, about three minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 1 minute, then add half the sauerkraut. Tie the juniper, cloves, peppercorns and bay leaf in cheesecloth to make a spice bag and put it on top of the sauerkraut. Add the remaining sauerkraut and pour the wine and water over it. Sprinkle with the pepper and bring to a boil over medium high heat.
Cover, and put the pot in the oven and cook for an hour for still-crunchy sauerkraut or up to two and one-half or even three hours for a very tender, nearly melting sauerkraut, adding more water or wine if needed to prevent the sauerkraut drying out. Remove the spice bag. The sauerkraut is now ready to eat or to use as a component in recipes. Great with hot dogs, sausages, and of course, essential for choucroute garnie.