I consider all vegetables to be my true friends. They are always there, reassuringly present even if they are not actually around, or in season. As with my human friends, some days all I want to do is hang out with them; others not as much. I swing from liking every one of their traits and quirks to getting a little irritated and impatient. Real-life kind of stuff.
Cabbage is a special friend. It doesn’t spring to mind as often as others do. It’s challenging in many ways. It doesn’t necessarily get along with my other friends. I still haven’t managed to get my children to love it, apart from a lemony slaw I once made for them that was so creamy and sour you couldn’t taste much else.
If I look at other food writers and cooks, I am definitely not the only one with a complex attitude toward cabbage. There aren’t many who would pour their hearts out in an unmitigated love serenade to the forebear of all brassicas. The only one I can think of is Nora Ephron, with her piece “The Lost Strudel” — admittedly less of a love song and more of an elegy.
Ephron’s strudel, a savory version stuffed with cabbage, was made in a Hungarian bakery on Third Avenue in Manhattan called Mrs. Herbst’s. It had a buttery, flaky, crispy crust, “with a moist filling of sautéed cabbage that’s simultaneously sweet, savory and completely unexpected, like all good things.”
Alas, Mrs. Herbst’s shut its doors around 1982, and Ephron, despite her best efforts, couldn’t find an alternative or recreate the original. As she writes: “And so, at first, you hope. And then, you hope against hope. And then finally, you lose hope. And there you have it: the three stages of grief when it comes to lost food.”
Another author who seems to conflate humans and cabbages is the English food writer Jane Grigson. “As a vegetable,” she writes, “it has original sin, and needs improvement. It can smell foul in the pot, linger through the house with pertinacity, and ruin a meal with its wet flab. Cabbage also has a nasty history of being good for you.”
So there you have it, all of cabbage’s shortcomings, laid out on a platter, no words minced.
Yet Grigson also begins to hint at solutions and mitigating circumstances. No. 1 is the type of cabbage used. She mentions John Evelyn, a 17th-century English writer and horticulturist who wrote about savoy cabbage, a relatively new variety at the time that was “not so rank, but agreeable to most Palates.” If I were a savoy cabbage, I wouldn’t welcome that compliment.
In any case, much of cabbage’s dubious reputation rests on two factors: its natural bitterness, which can actually be harnessed for extra joy, and the smell it leaves behind after cooking, which can be greatly moderated.
For my cabbage rolls with walnuts and sour cream, I choose savoy cabbage, which I find far more than just “agreeable,” thanks to its mild sweetness and only somewhat-bitter flavor. I also love the way it maintains its color through the cooking. Acidity and fat — in this case lemon juice and butter — aren’t there quite to balance the bitterness, but more to transform it from a liability to an asset. Think of a great bar of chocolate: Beyond sugar, it’s often these two elements that make it deliciously rich and complex.
Sweetness, of course, does lend a big helping hand, too. Here it is the allspice and cinnamon that subtly help create the age-old winning coupling of bitter and sweet. Again, I can’t miss out on a quote from a book about to be published by the food writer Niki Segnit, with another anthropomorphizing observation: “Turnip and cabbage are the parents of rutabaga, which must have caused a few sideways glances in the delivery room. All three vegetables share the cruciferous trait of welcoming a squeeze of sweetness — it gives their bitterness something to work against.”
It does! It also really helps not to overcook your cabbage in water, because this drastically escalates the all-too-familiar and unpleasant sulfur aromas. Stir-frying, grilling or steaming cabbage (which is effectively what happens to my cabbage rolls in the oven) are all methods that help keep these smells at bay as they ensure that the cabbage isn’t cooked beyond what’s necessary.
Finally, a smattering of cream — in this case sour cream, to boost sharpness — is often all it takes to bring the best out of the cabbage. It rounds everything up and covers it in just the right kind of coating to transform it.
You know that old friend you know so well who suddenly, after years of friendship, grows a little or changes a bit, just enough to make you realize again just how great they are? Well, that’s my cabbage.