Cabbage is just cabbage and nothing to get too excited about, right? Like most everyone else I thought of it only as that occasional dish of coleslaw you always eat with fish dinners. That was my impression of the cruciferous vegetable before Stanton Farms started growing fields of cabbage near us as a cash crop a couple years ago.
For one thing, as I mentioned in a previous article, these fields of cabbage make for a pleasant change of scenery besides the usual soybean and corn fields that are prevalent in the area. Rows of green cabbage interspersed with rows of red are just a downright pretty sight.
Members of the cruciferous family of vegetables are some of the less sexy members of the veggie family. Besides cabbage, this family includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, radishes, turnips and mustard greens to name a few.
It’s true that many of these stink up the kitchen when they cook, can be bitter if cooked too long, and are known for their gas-causing properties. On the flip side, cruciferous vegetables contain phytochemicals that offer superior health benefits. Studies have concluded that as cruciferous vegetable intake goes up 20 percent in a population, cancer rates drop 40 percent. Cabbage is also thought to be the secret of the everlasting youthfulness of the Chinese people. That’s enough to make me take a second look, or rather, bite.
One of my favorite ways to eat cabbage is in sauerkraut, which literally means “sour cabbage.” Each year on Halloween I always buy a jar of sauerkraut and have with hotdogs. It is just tradition. When I mentioned this to Dick Stose, a friend from Ohio, he guffawed, “You haven’t tasted sauerkraut until you’ve tasted homemade!”
I soon learned he, along with his cousin Mary Mullenhour, was planning to set up in her kitchen and make some. I just had to check this out as I had never seen it made before.
Actually, it seemed pretty simple. They had eight heads of cabbage and washed and chunked it all. Then Mary sliced it while Dick tapped it down and alternated layers of cabbage and salt in two large crocks. I learned that the purpose of tapping it down was to crush the juice out. This liquid becomes its own brine solution.
After the crocks are full, they are covered with a cloth such as cheesecloth that will keep contaminants out but also let air in to help it ferment. A rock or other hard object is placed on top to keep all the cabbage submerged in the juice.
Sometimes you see white scum, bubbles or even a little mold on top. These are all healthy signs of the fermentation process. Fermented kraut contains a lot of the same healthy probiotics that yogurt does. Granted, it sure doesn’t make it look appetizing when it is fermenting!
The local Lutheran church members have been making homemade sauerkraut for their harvest supper for as long as I can remember. This year they cut and sliced a whole pallet of cabbage. All of it was sliced with old-fashioned kraut cutters. Their recipe calls for 3 tablespoons salt for every 5 pounds cabbage. In the end they filled seven 10-gallon crocks. Now 70 gallons of sauerkraut is a lot of kraut but, as they say, when life gives you cabbage you make kraut!
They leave theirs to ferment for five to six weeks. There is no “set” amount of time, it’s all a matter of individual taste.
They serve it the old German way by cooking the bones of fresh hams (not smoked) and then combining the meat with the kraut. As with most harvest dinners, everything is homemade including the mashed potatoes, dinner rolls and pies.
I don’t know about other areas of the country, but no restaurant would dare to compete with the harvest dinners served in this neck of the woods. In addition to the sauerkraut supper, other churches offer Swiss steak, spaghetti and other homemade offerings. What a perfect way to lead up to Thanksgiving.
If you want to try your hand at making sauerkraut but you don’t have crocks or you don’t want 70 gallons, you can try a smaller batch in a Mason jar. Follow the same procedure, only cut the recipe by using only one head of cabbage and 1 1/2 tablespoons salt.
Coleslaw is another way to enjoy cabbage. There are generally two varieties, the vinegar and mayonnaise-based types. I tend to favor the vinegar-based because when the mayonnaise style slaw is left for a period of time it tends to go limp and soggy.
The four basic types of cabbage are the featherweight Napa, round Savoy, classic green, and the purple and white variegated red. Each has its own flavor and texture so combining the different varieties can yield new flavors to old classics.
One of the good traits of cabbage is it lasts in the fridge longer than most vegetables so it doesn’t usually go to waste. It is a cool season crop, which is why our below-average temps this past summer has made it plentiful.
I plan on taking advantage of the bounty. Cabbage offers a whole plethora of possibilities to please the palette while at the same time offering an array of health benefits. This cruciferous veggie and I are going to get along just fine.