Monday, February 6, 2012

Using Root-cellar Cabbage

Cabbage has been a consistent theme here, both because it is such a satisfying crop to grow, and because it has so many uses. In The Cabbage in Winter, I commented on some recipes for using cabbage, and in Cabbage is King discussed cabbage's importance as the food of the poor.

One of the most important reasons to celebrate cabbage is its role as a storage vegetable. Whether in fermented form (sauerkraut) or simply stored in a cold place like a root cellar, cabbage can serve as a nutritious vegetable through most of the winter at a time when fresh vegetables are (traditionally) unavailable. More attention is being given to root cellaring these days (here's a summary from a local workshop) as a way to preserve homegrown (or purchased) produce that is not canning, freezing, dehydrating, or pickling. After all, even excellent pickles have their limits as vegetable sides. Cabbage is a good root cellar subject if the right varieties are used.

That choice of variety is crucial, as I've learned from hard experience. Cabbages (we're talking the head-forming type, not Chinese cabbage or any of the numerous leafy members of the clan) can be of many colors (though the basics are red and green), shapes and sizes. But a crucial difference is whether they are summer cabbages intended for early harvest or fall cabbages. Early (summer) cabbages are tender, fresh and sweet, and lovely for slaw or other salad use. My beloved Tendersweet (see Mon Petit Chou) is wonderful for this. But as I described in Cabbage for Sauerkraut, early cabbages can split, as early as the first week in August. For either sauerkraut or for cold storage, you want the ones that grow fat and happy well into the fall. This head was photographed on November 16, just before harvesting. It is a variety from Johnny's Seeds, appropriately named "Storage".

The next problem is finding a good storage place. Refrigerators will work. But the idea is to find a "root cellar" space, one that stays cool but doesn't freeze. For most people who don't have a root cellar, this requires some ingenuity. (Note that a basement does not make a good root cellar. It is usually too warm and is also frequently too wet.) I found that an old kitchen cabinet in my unheated garage stayed above freezing. (The thermometer is a min/max.) This picture was taken on December 26.

The cabbage will dry on the outer leaves and should be watched for rot (do not use plastic bags!). It can be withdrawn for use as needed. This cabbage was removed from the garage on February 12. Note that the internal leaves are white and dense.

The stored cabbage can be used for fresh use, like coleslaw, but the result is only acceptable.

It is excellent for cooking, however, though not for cabbage rolls (the leaves are too tightly packed). For example, thinly sliced cabbage can be added to a gratin. An important key to cooking cabbage is that it should always be simmered, sautéed or braised gently, so the sulfurous compounds that give boiled cabbage a bad name are not released.

Here is an old favorite from my childhood that makes good use of the freshness of the stored cabbage. This soup is excellent with homemade cornbread. It is satisfying without being heavy and will keep for several days in the refrigerator.

Mother's Hamburger Cabbage Soup

1 pound or less lean ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 head cabbage, cut into thin shreds
1 stalk celery, chopped
Canned tomatoes (home-canned or 14-16 oz can) with juice
Black pepper
Dried sweet basil
to taste: salt, hot pepper sauce (note: canned tomatoes are salty already)

Cook the ground beef in a minimum of oil until the meat is no longer raw, but do not brown. Add the onion, tomatoes, and water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and add cabbage and celery. Cover and simmer for about half an hour, keeping water level well above the vegetables and stirring occasionally. Add seasonings and simmer for a few more minutes. Cabbage should be tender before serving.