Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cabbage for Sauerkraut

Not only do I like to eat cabbages, I like to look at them. I've always thought that there is nothing prettier in the garden than cabbages glowing against the earth. What a pleasure to find that others share this affection. On a page devoted to cabbage cultivation, the author states "There is no more regal a vegetable than a well-grown cabbage, three feet across, its giant silvery green or dusty purple leaves shining with health." Amen to that, brother.

When I began growing cabbage in my garden for the purpose of making sauerkraut, I was quite ignorant of cabbage varieties. I knew the difference between red and green cabbage, and that savoy and Chinese cabbage were different types, but otherwise green cabbage was cabbage. This was partly because green cabbage bought in the store is fairly nondescript and probably one of just a few varieties. For a while I grew "Stonehead", a nice compact cabbage that I now understand is an early cabbage. Then two years ago, a spectacularly bad decision: I planted "Gonzales". Rereading the catalog from Johnny's Selected Seeds, I have no idea why I selected that one. It is an early cabbage meant to be harvested young and small. When I held the plants into the early fall for the purpose of making sauerkraut, I lost a third of them to splitting.

I now understand that the reason cabbage splits in our climate is that it has had enough cool weather followed by hot weather to make it flower. In other words, splitting is the cabbage equivalent of bolting. The head splits and a flower stalk grows out of it. Since both Stonehead and Gonzales were early cabbages, they started to split in mid-August. Once the head splits, it is prone to bacterial rot and isn't very nice anyway.

Both of these cabbages also produced rather small heads, between 1-2.5 pounds with biggest exterior leaves removed. They were somewhat difficult to shred, since they didn't fit the large holder on the krauthobel very well. There was a lot of wastage after I cleaned off the exterior dirty and green leaves and cored them.

When I visited cabbage fields in Wisconsin where cabbage for kraut was grown, I was amazed at the large heads, the size of a beach ball. The interior was very firm and white. Finally I did some research and now understand that this was probably a variety of late cabbage especially good to use for kraut. The most popular among home kraut makers seems to be an old variety called Late Flat Dutch. It is so old-fashioned that most modern seed catalogs don't carry it, but I found it in R.H. Shumway. "Heads average 10-12 inches across, often weighing 15 to 20 pounds." Now, consider that a 3-gallon crock only holds about 15 pounds of shredded cabbage. These are clearly cabbages for the serious. Next year I'll grow these and also some other late cabbages. Early cabbages are supposed to be mature in 60 days. I was holding them past their prime. Late cabbages are about 110 days to harvest, so I'll plant early for a fall sauerkraut production run. These late dense heads are also the favored cabbages for winter storage. And I think they'll be fun to look at. (Edited for clarity)

Kaitlin cabbage (picture cropped from Johnny's catalog)
UPDATE (2013):  This post is one of my most-viewed, so I feel compelled to update it to be more useful.
In subsequent years I planted Johnny's Selected Seeds variety Kaitlin (F1).  This was a superior cabbage for sauerkraut and is bred for that purpose. (Note that the designation (F1) means that it is a hybrid and not suitable for seedsaving.) Here are some of the features that make it a good cabbage for sauerkraut:
Late.  As I explained in my original post, cabbages that are mostly grown as summer (early) cabbages for eating tend to split in late summer or early fall.  I was able to harvest Kaitlin in late September for excellent quality and yield. 
Light.  The interior is almost completely white, which makes for a very clean-looking kraut.  I also did not observe any internal tipburn, which is a flaw in some cabbages that leaves nasty little brown shreds in the kraut.
Heavy.  The heads were substantial.  I do not have a record of weights, but I recall that they were all in excess of 3 pounds and closer to 5 pounds.

 If you want to grow cabbage just for sauerkraut, this is a good one.  It is fine as a winter storage cabbage too. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Cabbage in Winter

Now that the garden is buried in snow, we are eating through our harvest. Most of it is preserved in some way, but there are still some roots in the produce crisper, and red cabbage in the basement refrigerator. Ruby Perfection makes heads rather late and they are very frost-tolerant. I brought them in just before the winter weather really hit. Now we are tired of rotkohl (German red cabbage), so it's time to try something else.

I wrote earlier about the lack of respect cabbage gets and its importance as a nutritious vegetable, especially to the world's poor. Now the New York Times has not only reinforced that point but includes some excellent-sounding recipes that are nicely frugal as well as nutritious. I like these recipes better than some of those in the links at the bottom of the article. As one of the authors notes, the answer to the blandness of cabbage and some of its less attractive flavor notes has been to smother it with pork, cream, cheese and such, thus to turn its nutritious, economical nature on its head (so to speak). Some of the recipes do that, and really I think using shrimp in stuffed cabbage is an aberration, especially since it is likely to be farmed shrimp. This Greek cabbage and feta pie sounds good, though.

Still, one of the articles reminded me that caraway seeds, a traditional flavoring for cabbage, also was used in medieval times as a digestive, thus offsetting some of the tendency for cabbage to cause bloating or other problems. It also reminded me of a recipe I think I'll use tonight.

Hot Cabbage Slaw

Core and shred a small head of cabbage, or 1/2 head green and 1/2 red cabbage. Toss it with 3 teaspoons of salt and allow to sit in a bowl for 30 minutes. Rinse and drain.

Cook 2 slices of bacon until crisp; set aside. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the skillet.

Add the drained cabbage to the fat and cook until hot and wilted, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds, 2 teaspoons sugar, and 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar. Place on serving dish or individual plates and crumble bacon over the top.

Note: I have adjusted the seasoning from the original recipe, which called for adding 2 teaspoons of salt at the end, plus 2 teaspoons of caraway seeds. I also reduced the vinegar; add more to taste. Depending on how much cabbage you use, you may also want to use slightly more of the bacon fat. I found that 1/2 small head of cabbage was about right for 2 people, so reduced almost everything.