Bold red cabbages, seen in the fields under a slate gray sky or piled high in farmers market stalls, are as striking and beautiful as giant roses.
From September through April, I rely on red cabbage to brighten our meals, as slaw, in stir-fries and sautés, as well as soup. In fact, the best thing about red cabbage is the number of ways it can be enjoyed raw and lightly cooked — shredded into a slaw; chopped to add to a salad; sizzled in Chinese pork stir-fries; lightly steamed and drizzled with sesame oil and rice vinegar, or quickly braised in cider with apples.
The flavor of red cabbage is more assertive and peppery than green cabbage, and I find that the leaves are crisper, too. When shopping for red cabbage, know that a good one will be firm and hard, its leaves bright and tightly wrapped in the head. A good red cabbage will squeak with freshness and the leaves keep better as a whole head than they do once separated. The best way to store it is to spritz the head with a little water, put it into a plastic bag and keep in the crisper section of the refrigerator, where it will stay fresh for about a week.
One of the simplest ways to enjoy this versatile vegetable is in a quick slaw, delicious when just made, but even better the next day after its flavors have married and the leaves soften a bit. Use the basic ratio of one part acid (apple cider, sherry, malt, red or white wine vinegar or citrus juice) to two parts oil (olive, sesame, walnut oil, etc.). The range of variations is endless when the following ingredients are tossed into the mix: chopped candied ginger, caraway seeds, crushed juniper, dill, fennel, walnuts, hazelnuts, crumbled blue cheese, dots of creamy chèvre, shredded sharp Cheddar or asiago.
Especially now, as our local salad greens have passed their peak, I’ve come to appreciate the crude crunch of red cabbage. Lightly steamed or quickly sautéed or stir-fried, it makes a bright side dish to the autumnal entrees of roast pork, game, chicken, bratwurst, smoked meats and fish. The one thing red cabbage hates is boiling water, so cook it lightly or not at all.
And, when making a slaw, the crucial point is to play off its clean bite — no mayonnaise or overly creamy dressings necessary. While many recipes advise cutting the cabbage in half and removing the hard, white core, that is something I rarely do, preferring to use the whole head.
Fresh Red Cabbage and Fennel Slaw
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Peppery, crunchy red cabbage and fennel, with its mild licorice notes, work beautifully in this simple slaw sparked with crushed fennel seeds and black pepper. Serve this with a little fresh goat cheese (chèvre) spread thickly on coarse bread drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with more crushed fennel. From Beth Dooley.
• 6 c. shredded red cabbage
• 1 c. shredded fennel
• 1/2 c. sliced green onions
• 1 tsp. honey
• 2 tsp. Dijon mustard
• 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
• 1/4 c. walnut or vegetable oil
• 2 tsp. crushed fennel seed
• Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a large bowl, toss together the cabbage, fennel and onions.
In a separate small bowl, whisk together the honey, mustard, vinegar, oil and fennel seed. Toss just enough of the dressing onto the cabbage to lightly coat the ingredients. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Nutrition information per serving of 6:
Carbohydrates 11 g
Protein 2 g
Fat 10 g
Saturated fat 1 g
Cholesterol 0 mg
Sodium 90 mg
Total sugars 6 mg
Dietary fiber 4 g
Exchanges per serving: 2 vegetable, 2 fat.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.