It’s almost the season for the corned beef and cabbage and green beer of St. Patrick’s Day. Every year when March 17th rolls around everyone becomes a little Irish. Cabbage is so nutrient-rich that it deserves a place on the table a few times a week throughout the year, not just on the Irish’s special day. A little more on that later.
First, I wanted to know just why cabbage was such a part of the Irish heritage. It seems that cabbage gained its fame in 17th century Ireland because many farmers and the rural poor relied on it for food during that time period. It grew well and was cheap to produce. During the great potato famine in 1845 the potato blight nearly wiped out this staple in the Irish diet. Many then turned to cabbage, eating an average of 65 pounds per person per year.
As many Irish immigrants began to hit American shores they brought their food preferences and recipes with them. A popular dish was colcannon, a dish made of boiled and mashed potatoes and cabbage.
Usually this time of year you don’t hear about cabbage without it being paired with corned beef. Although considered a traditional Irish dish, it was more like cabbage and bacon or ham in the beginning. It seems beef was not readily available in Ireland and was considered to be a luxury. Thus, the traditional Irish meal centered around ham and bacon. When the Irish got off the boats in America they located close to the Jewish communities. They had trouble finding bacon so they substituted corned beef which was very similar in texture.
It’s reported that the bars of New York of the early 20th century would offer free dinners of corned beef and cabbage to Irish workers who came in after laboring all day on building sites in the city. It was a win/win situation since the meal was relatively cheap and the workers would still have to buy drinks to get their free dinner.
Many people don’t get excited when they think about cabbage even though they should. There are countless ways to prepare it and it is so good for you. It belongs to a family of vegetables called cruciferous which also includes broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, horseradish, radishes, rutabagas and turnips, to name just a few.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman is a doctor who has done studies of cancer incidence in 25 countries. He found that as the intake of cruciferous vegetables went up 20% in a population, cancer rates dropped by 40%. He also found that eating just one serving of cruciferous vegetables a day reduced the risk of breast cancer by over 50% and one or more servings of cabbage per week reduced the risk of pancreatic cancer by 38%.
Right about now many of you must be thinking that you would like to try to add more of this healthy vegetable to your diet but you do not want to eat cole slaw two or three times per week. Think again. Even this dish has many variations. There is the traditional creamy cole slaw dressing made with mayonnaise and, for a little tangier version, try mixing equal amounts of vinegar, sugar and water for a dressing.
New Englanders like their boiled dinner. For this dish, corned beef or ham, cabbage and other root vegetables are boiled together and served over either boiled or mashed potatoes.
A couple cabbage favorites of mine are hog maw and cabbage stew. Hog maw is a Pennsylvania Dutch recipe where the hog maw (the exterior muscular wall of a pig’s stomach organ with the interior lining removed and thoroughly washed) is stuffed with cabbage, potatoes, onions and breakfast sausage and then either baked or grilled until tender and browned. If you think this is particularly disgusting, you can try my version of replacing the hog maw with aluminum foil. It renders the same outcome.
Cabbage stew can be described as chili with a few twists, mainly the addition of cabbage. Here’s the recipe:
1. Brown 1-1/2 pounds hamburg and 3 small onions
2. Boil 1 head of cabbage and 4 stalks of celery
3. Add 1 quart of stewed tomatoes, 1 jar of spaghetti sauce, 1 can kidney beans, 1 cup water, 2 tablespoons vinegar to above ingredients
4. Add salt, pepper, garlic and soy sauce to taste then simmer until thick
Now, don’t call me crazy but I’ve been eating cabbage in a whole new way. You have heard about lettuce wraps; well, consider cabbage wraps for sandwiches. Take your favorite lunch meat, a slice of cheese and a little mayo or your favorite condiment and roll it all up in a cabbage leaf. Also, take a cabbage leaf and spread with peanut butter and roll up. I actually prefer these “cabbage sandwiches” over the traditional ones with bread. You add a delightful “crunch” factor without the added calories and heaviness of bread.
Cabbage is so versatile. Add some to your favorite soups, stews and casseroles to reap huge benefits. After all, cabbage isn’t just for St. Patty’s Day, its benefits should be reaped year round.