THE GOCHISO GOURMET: The humble cabbage

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Yes, I realize that it’s not the sexiest food or vegetable. And though it’s the main ingredient in coleslaw, when was the last time you had a Pavlovian reaction when someone placed a bowl of coleslaw in front of you? Most of the other Brassica oleracea cultivars have their devoted and dedicated followers, like kale, whose devotees jam their Vitamixes for smoothies; BBQ enthusiasts who swear that collard greens are the only side that should be served with ribs; or low carb fanatics who use cauliflower as a carb substitute for pizza crust, rice and even mashed potatoes. And I recently highlighted broccoli and its versatility. Even Brussels sprouts are in the limelight, especially when they’re deep fried, often with bacon. But cabbage? It’s just another one of those ho hum foods …

Cabbage Nutrition
Though cabbage may not get any respect at the dinner table, consider this; the 3,3 diindolylmethane in cabbage increased short-term survival in rats exposed to lethal doses of radiation. The sulforaphane also found in cabbage can impede the growth of certain cancers, including melanoma, prostate, pancreatic and esophageal in lab studies, possibly by inhibiting an enzyme involved in cancer growth, and apigenin decreased tumor size when aggressive breast cancer cells were implanted in mice.

The anthocyanins found in red cabbage have been found to slow formed cancer cells as well as limit the formation of new tumor growths and possibly reduce the inflammation associated with cardiovascular disease. When fermented, as in kimchi and sauerkraut, it creates a load of probiotics that can help both your immune and digestive systems. And the fiber in cabbage helps keep you “regular.” That alone will keep me eating cabbage.

Cabbage is also a good source of Vitamin K, magnesium and folic acid and it also contains pyridoxine, calcium and thiamine along with choline, beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin.

My Standby Weekday Lunch
For the past several years, the Mrs. and I have been noshing primarily on vegetables for our weekday lunches. Initially, we brown-bagged sandwiches and veggie sticks for lunch, but started consuming just veggies after overindulging during our Bay Area vacations, and eventually, veggies became our usual lunch. Cabbage is often involved because of its ease in preparation. You simply have to quarter it, slice off the core, then chop and cook. No peeling, seeding or other prep work is needed and everything can be cooked in one pot. I often jazz our lunchtime cabbage up with a hint of protein, sometimes finely sliced ham, chicken or pork, and I often add both smoked salt and smoked paprika for a little more pizazz.

On other weeks, I often use head cabbage’s cousin, won bok (or Napa cabbage) cooked with sliced bamboo shoots, sliced shiitake mushrooms and daikon (radish) for an Asian twist using sliced fishcake as the protein. Of course, won bok takes a little more prep work, as crawly green critters sometimes invade those inner leaves, so you must inspect every leaf before chopping the cabbage. But that additional sweetness found in won bok makes it worth the extra effort.

The Simplest Technique, Raw
Raw is the simplest, as it only requires slicing and dicing to prepare your mise en place, but no heat is needed. And what rhymes with raw? Slaw! But your Southern-based coleslaw is so yesterday, so update it with Asian flavors perfect for any summertime barbecue.

Asian coleslaw. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Asian Coleslaw
1/2 large head cabbage, thin sliced
1 small head purple cabbage, thin sliced
1 medium carrot, peeled and long grated
1 bunch green onion, sliced on the diagonal
2 tsp toasted sesame seeds
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp cilantro flavored oil
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp tabasco shoyu
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp tonkatsu sauce
about 1/3 cup mayonnaise
salt and black pepper to taste

Toss the first four ingredients in a large bowl. Wisk together next eight ingredients until a smooth dressing forms. Add enough mayonnaise until you have one cup total of dressing mixture. Pour over cabbage and toss until evenly coated. I ran out of my cilantro-infused olive oil so I simply added 1 tbsp of vegetable oil and tossed the veggies with roughly chopped cilantro. Chill and serve.

Blackened Cabbage
The charred cabbage dishes cooking technique present in trendy restaurants started several years ago. Whenever food is charred, the browning reaction is caused by the caramelization of natural sugars in the food. Caramelized foods add additional flavors, like the charred surface of a steak and in vegetables. Because the excess moisture is eliminated, it tends to sweeten and intensify existing flavor components. However, if you watch any video on charring cabbage in your own home, the heated surface of the cabbage literally blackens and I’m not sure most home cooks want to take cooking to this level of char as there’s a very fine line between a caramelized, delicious outcome and simply tasting burnt.

photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

So, if blackened cabbage is a little too adventurous for your taste, the following recipe chars the cabbage to a nice golden brown. I first sampled this dish at local Izakaya Nonbei, which was a favorite hangout for local Chef George Mavrothalassitis of the eponymous Chef Mavro restaurant. The original owners sold the restaurant years ago so I’m not even sure if this dish is still on the current menu, but the combination of cabbage sweetened naturally by charring balanced with the salty, umami (“fifth taste”) qualities of iriko (tiny salt dried anchovies) with sweetened, crunchy garlic chips and a touch of smokiness from the charred cabbage and bonito flakes, was simply perfection. The only issue in preparation is that you want browning (or the Maillard reaction) of the cabbage, so only a single layer can be prepared at a time. Large amounts of cabbage will release too much moisture during cooking and browning won’t occur.

In any case, I present to you my rendition of the dish.

Izakaya-style Charred Cabbage
One-half head cabbage, sliced
1 package iriko Sliced fresh garlic cloves
Bonito flakes
Finely sliced green onions
Cooking oil

Heat a heavy frying pan to medium high heat. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan then add a single layer of cabbage and some of the sliced garlic and saute until the cabbage starts to char and the garlic slices brown but not burn. Toss with the iriko constantly, making sure nothing burns. I couldn’t find iriko at my neighborhood market, so I substituted a couple of dashes of powdered hon dashi, which also gives the cabbage an umami kick. Remove from heat then top with the bonito flakes and green onions.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at -->

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