I’ve spent the last couple of week’s trying to clean up cabbage’s malodorous profile. Cabbage is abundantly local and abundantly nutritious — a good source of thiamin, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium, and a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamins C, K and B6, folate and manganese. Even organic versions of cabbage are relatively inexpensive.
According to Harold McGee in “On Food and Cooking; the science and lore of the kitchen,” the “cooked cabbage smell” is attributed to the plant’s two kinds of defensive chemicals: flavor precursors, or glucosinolates, which contain both sulfur and nitrogen, and enzymes that act on the precursors to liberate reactive flavors. When a cabbage, cauliflower, or Brussels sprout cell is damaged, the two stockpiles are mixed, and the enzymes start a chain of reactions that generate strong smelling, bitter, pungent, compounds, the kitchen smells of James Joyce interiors. These precursor and enzyme amounts differ for members of the cabbage family, even at different seasons of the year. Young, active leaves of Brussels sprouts are packed with glucosinolates; indeed, at 35, brussels sprouts have the highest level of relative sulfur pungency precursors in the cabbage family. Green cabbage has 26. Broccoli has 17. Red cabbage has 10. Cauliflower has 2.
In the case of Brussels sprouts, the precursors collect in the center of each sprout; by halving Brussels sprouts, and cooking them in salted water, the offending enzymes are released, making them milder, but probably not enough for small children to stop holding their noses; the greatest glucosinolate and enzyme battle lives in a Brussels sprout.
In the case of cabbage, aggressive and prolonged cell damage — as in boiling — gets those glucosinolates and enzymes busy. A fresh pot of bubble and squeak, the classic English boiled cabbage and potato casserole may remind people that the notorious World War I mustard gas was inspired by the cabbage family’s unique defenses.
Lucky for us, fall and winter cabbages are milder. I was out to find a cabbage recipe in which the strands cooked gently, became sweet and silky, and welcomed other seasonings.
At my CSA pickup recently, I learned about a recipe that was half pasta, half cabbage. I went home and played with it successfully enough for the pasta-monger in my family to demand seconds: I tossed long strips of lasagna noodles, torn length-wise, with equal amounts of shredded savoy cabbage which had been cooked until silky with red onion, thyme and red pepper flakes. Pine nuts on top for a little extra crunch made it all extra delicious.
My aunt, aware of my cabbage research, offered this recipe, which is the cabbage family winner right now: shredded cabbage and carrots are cooked very quickly in the sharp, meaty taste of beef bouillion, and then dressed in mustard, butter and walnuts, a hefty shake of good paprika on top. This is colorful and flavorful, a wonderful side dish for salmon, chicken, and — I’ll say it — an excellent local alternative to the Thanksgiving Day vegetable line-up.
Cabbage with Mustard and Walnuts
1 beef bouillon cube
1/4 cup hot water
5 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup butter melted
3 tablespoons prepared mustard
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon (or more to taste) good quality paprika
Dissolve bouillon cube in water. Combine bouillon, cabbage, carrots, green onion, and salt and pepper in a heavy saucepan. Toss lightly. Cover and cook over low heat for five minutes stirring occasionally.
Melt butter in a small saucepan. Stir in mustard and walnuts, and cook until nuts begin to get brown and toasted.
Pour over vegetables. Mix well. Sprinkle with paprika. May be served hot or at room temperature.
Gloucester resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to email@example.com. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.