Sunday, 18 December 2016

Cabbage: a neglected vegetable

Winter cabbage: a thing of beauty
As a German, I feel a definite affinity for the humble cabbage. For such a versatile, long-lasting, tasty and nutritious vegetable, it just doesn't get the recognition it deserves and is often overlooked in favour of Mediterranean vegetables, which are not grown locally or are out of season in this country for more than half of the year. Cabbage is hardly ever out of season and it stores for a long time in the fridge. I'd like to see more people growing cabbages and enjoy eating them so here I've put together some ideas for preparing them that go far above and beyond mere boiling.

Growing cabbage

Slightly chomped savoy cabbage
Apart from the twin evils of slugs and cabbage white caterpillars, cabbages are pretty straightforward to grow. As long as you keep on top of the slug control and watch out for the first cabbage white butterflies (when you may want to net them over if practical), cabbages don't need much looking after. If they are attacked by slugs, I tend to harvest them young rather than wait for the slugs to much their way from the outer leaves into the crunchy interior.

I either start cabbages in pots indoors or in a seed bed, depending on the time of year, and then transplant them to their final position when they've reached about 15cm in height - don't transplant too young. After transplanting, the seedlings should sit slightly deeper in the soil, with the lowest leaves in the ground.

We grow spring cabbage, white cabbage (summer and winter varieties), red cabbage and savoy cabbage - this means cabbage throughout the year! Of these, savoy cabbage is probably the easiest to grow.

Recipe ideas

Red cabbage, especially good for braising
Right, on to recipes. There are a good few in my forthcoming book, but here are a few similar ones and some additional ones that I've found online.

Braised cabbage

Braised cabbage is a classic side dish and a must-have at Christmas when I make it with red cabbage and onion lightly sauteed in goose fat (or duck fat, lard or beef dripping, depending on availability) and then slow cooked with red wine, apples, bay leaves and cloves. Particularly good served with game!

Warm cabbage salad
Another very German dish is warm cabbage salad. Actually this dish is good hot or cold. The key is to use cider or white wine vinegar and plenty of black pepper - and to add the fat from frying the bacon/pancetta and onion to the finished salad. 

Combined with potatoes
Coleslaw made with red cabbage and carrot
Other good traditional dishes are Irish colcannon and British bubble and squeak. Great ways to use up leftovers.

Cabbage is also good shredded into mixed salads or, of course, as the main ingredient in coleslaw. Coleslaw is a fantastic salad any time of year. It's best made at least four hours before serving so that the flavours can mingle - ideally it's made the night before. At its most basic all you need is a head of cabbage and an onion, but usually a couple of carrots are grated in as well and sometimes a bell pepper. The cabbage doesn't have to be white. Try red or savoy or a mixture of the two, which looks pretty. I'm no fan of coleslaw slathered in mayonnaise so here are four dressings that use little or no mayonnaise:
Spicy fried cabbage

My favourite one is the spicy slaw.

Asian style
Generally cabbage works well with Asian dishes and stir-fried in Asian marinades. Throw some into some egg-fried rice, try a cabbage masala or stir-fry as a side dish.

And then there's the world of fermentation:


Cabbage and radish ready for brining
A good supply of kimchi
There's a reason that Koreans eat this with every meal - it's seriously good, not to mention its health benefits. And we've found it easy to make from these step by step instructions - easier than sauerkraut (and, consider it treasonous, I actually prefer it to sauerkraut). You don't need Chinese/Napa cabbage, any cabbage will do (and other vegetables such as radish and carrot are good in it, too).

Basically, you brine the shredded cabbage for up to a day. Make sure to use sea salt or rock salt, not table salt (anti-caking agents are bad news for fermentation), in the salt solution (1 tbsp per 250ml). Then you make some gruel from rice flour, blend together the spice mix (spring onions, onion, garlic, ginger, 1 tsp chilli flakes and the all-important Korean pepper flakes (gochugaru), plus anchovy extract as an optional extra), mix the two and massage the spice mix into the drained cabbage. Then fill into preserving jars (we use one-litre Weck jars with a plastic lid), making sure the liquid covers the veg and that there is 2.5cm headroom for expansion during fermentation. Let sit at room temperature for about five days - presto. We start sampling from day 3.

If you're wondering what to do with all that kimchi besides eating it as a side, check out Maanchi's website for recipe ideas such as kimchi stew, kimchi fried rice or kimchi dumplings.


Sauerkraut is another good way of preserving your cabbage. You can eat it hot or cold, sweet (with pineapple or apple chunks and a little sugar) or savoury (with caraway seeds or bacon bits). Again, it doesn't have to be white cabbage. Red cabbage makes great sauerkraut, too! We make ours in a homemade Pickl-it jar, which is a preserving jar modified to take an airlock.

There are some some things to watch out for when making sauerkraut. It's a bit more finicky than making kimchi:
  • Use the right kind of salt (sea salt or rock salt, not table salt).
  • Get the amount of salt right.
  • Keep the cabbage well under the liquid; large cabbage leaves weighed down with sterilised stones can be useful for this. Otherwise it can go mouldy very quickly.
  • Start with a small (one-litre) batch.
  • If it goes mouldy, slimy or smells horrible, compost it.


  1. Hooray, let's hear it for cabbage - it is such an underrated vegetable but I love it cooked and raw. I've never understood why it has such a poor reputation. Great recipe ideas, I like the idea of a warm salad. You're right about coleslaw and mayo, we prefer a citrussy yogurt dressing which is so much lighter and fresher. Do you have any trouble with pigeons on your young plants? (Actually, they recycle quite nicely into a warm salad . . .) Good luck with your book, how exciting!

    1. Hooray, you were allowed to comment using your name! We don't get many pigeons here (otherwise they would be recycled into a root vegetable casserole with red wine), our main 'pest' birds are the blackbirds, but thankfully they don't go for cabbage. Yes, I'm very excited about the book. Makes a change to be the author for once!


Comments and questions are welcome.
If you've tried something after reading about it here, or have suggestions, please tell us about it!