Most Americans are unfamiliar with this colorful cousin of green head cabbage, except for the classic Iceberg salad mixes which now include a little shredded red cabbage for color. But the smooth purple leaves laced with white veins add color and flavor to many dishes. Grated or thinly sliced, cooked or raw, it is a tasty, low calorie side dish for meat.
The bright crimson to purple color comes from anthocyanine, which is only present in the outside of each leaf and stem; the cells inside are white. That is why, when cut before cooking, a head of red cabbage displays a gorgeous red and white contrast. Because the color changes from violet to red when acid like lemon or vinegar is added, red cabbage was one of the earliest pH indicators, and was used by chemists in the early 20th century.
Before refrigeration, cabbage was a winter staple because it is one of the last vegetables harvested in the fall and can be stored for several months in a cool root cellar. Hardy, strong, and abundant, it thrives in cool weather and can withstand mild frost, so it's a great crop for gardeners in our area.
Red varieties of cabbage are very popular in northern European countries. It is the Celts who first developed the hard-heading cabbages; the Romans used the leafy varieties that grow in warmer climates. Most of the European words for cabbage derive from caul or "stem" in Celto-Germanic languages. Today, a stew of sweet and sour red cabbage is still a traditional German dish.
Round cabbage heads were first described in England in the 14th century, when the words cabaches and caboches indicated the difference between heading and leafy varieties. The red cabbage varieties came into use later; we don't hear about them until 1570.
Red cabbage adds color, texture, fiber and vitamins to any meal. It has more fiber than green varieties, a four ounce serving of cooked red cabbage containing 2.7 grams. Both red and green cabbages are low in calories and are excellent sources of vitamin C and the minerals sulfur, iron, calcium, and potassium, but red cabbage has higher quantities of these nutrients than its green cousin. Both green and red cabbage also contain vitamins B1, B2, B3, and D; the outer leaves supply vitamin E. Cooking cabbage decreases its nutritional value, however.
We have known for several years now that cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables protect against cancer. They also stimulate the immune system, soothe ulcers, improve circulation, and kill harmful bacteria. A recent study published in Food Science and Technology (March '06) shows that the antioxidant polyphenols, such as anthocyaninis, which are plentiful in red cabbage, can protect brain cells from neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
When shopping, look for smaller, tight, shiny heads that are dark, fresh, and crisp, without withered leaves. Store in a cool, dry place. In the old days, root cellars did the trick; today we have refrigerators. Although it will keep relatively long when stored this way, it is not something that benefits from being kept in the fridge a long time.
Although red cabbage can be used in most recipes that call for green head cabbage, you should be aware that it is prone to discoloration, and that the color will leach into the other ingredients. This is because anthocyanin, the compound that gives red cabbage its color, will turn it blue when cooked without any added acid. To retain the bright red color while cooking, use a minimal amount of water combined with a teaspoon of acid, such as vinegar, lemon juice or wine. If your cabbage begins to turn blue, add more acid to bring back the original bright red color. Red cabbage is also a bit tougher than green, so it takes longer to cook - but be careful not to overcook it, or you will sacrifice flavor and vitamins.
Try it shredded Japanese style, raw with a little vinegar, sugar and salt. Or season with vinegar, sweeten with raisins and spice with cumin. Braised red cabbage goes well with onions, apples, red wine and nuts, and is great alongside pork or fowl. Or simmer over low heat with sugar and vinegar for sweet and sour red cabbage.
Red cabbage and Spinach salad
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic -- minced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
cup apple cider
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 cups red cabbage, about
1/2 pound?-?coarsely chopped
1 apple, peeled and diced
1 small beet - peeled and shredded
1 sweet onion, peeled and cut in half, then into rings
4 cups spinach leaves, about 8 ounces -- thinly sliced
In mortar and pestle, crush garlic with salt. Place in salad bowl, along with remaining ingredients. Stir with a whisk to combine. Add salad ingredients in order given, tossing well after each addition to coat with the dressing. Serve immediately.
Red cabbage with wine and sausage
1 large head cabbage
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3/4 cup water
1/2 pound kielbasa
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 Tablespoon flour
1/2 cup red wine
Chop cabbage, and cook in water with salt and sugar about 5 to 7 minutes.
While cabbage is cooking, cut the sausage into two inch lengths and halve or quarter. Brown the sausage and onions in small amount of oil.
Drain cabbage, reserving the water, and combine in serving dish with sausage and onions. Keep warm.
Stir flour into the pan in which the sausage and onions were cooking; cook a few minutes until golden in color, then add the wine and reserved cabbage cooking water. Stir rapidly over medium heat until sauce thickens. Stir sauce into cabbage, and serve with salt potatoes or over pasta, with a light soup as a first course. Or, omit sausage, add a sprinkling of raisins and walnuts, and serve as a side dish with roast pork or chicken.
Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.