Brilliant and assertive in color and flavor, red cabbage comes into my kitchen like the new school term. It's a seasonal marker, sure as the changing leaves and brisk breezes.

This time of year, garden-fresh red cabbage doesn't need much to pretty up a plate of autumnal fare.

Shred it into crisp green salads or quickly sauté it with a little ginger and soy sauce, or hot pepper and lime juice, or caraway, apples and sharp vinegar for a fine side dish. Paired with wild rice or cooked navy beans, it can make a full meal.

My affinity for cabbage came later in life, long after I'd graduated from college, where the cafeteria cooked pale heads within an inch of their lives.

When treated well, the flavor of red and green cabbage is just bitter enough to match the more robust flavors of fall — smoked pork and sausages, roast meat and game. It does beautifully in fresh vegetable and bean soups. Cabbage is a natural partner to fresh orchard apples and pears that add a mellow sweetness.

A good head of cabbage will squeak with freshness. In most recipes, red and green cabbage are interchangeable, but I prefer the redheaded varieties. The flavor is sharper and the leaves seem crisper.

To keep any head of cabbage fresh for as long as possible, wrap it in a paper towel, spritz with a little water and then put it into a plastic bag and store in the vegetable section of the refrigerator. This way, most just picked heads will keep for at least a week.

Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis author and cooking instructor.