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Cabbage and Kohlrabi

by Louise Fiszer & Jeannette Ferrary

Enterprising produce departments have begun planting what look like designer labels amidst the spiffy rows of fruits and vegetables. Their purpose is to identify each specific variety of produce and suggest how best to take advantage of it. For a really well-stocked cabbage department, this could become a daunting task.

Green and purple cabbages, which need no introduction, are only the beginning. Even the ruffled Savoys, or the compact Danishes or Hollanders, are reasonably familiar. But the proliferation of Asian cabbages, with their special uses and subtle differences, is sure to exasperate any label maker, let alone consumer.

Under the category Chinese cabbages, we find -- for starters -- the slightly crinkled Nappa (or Napa), the tall Michihli (also called celery cabbage), the flat cabbage, the flowering white cabbage, Pe-tsai, Tai-sai, Lei-choi, and Pakchoi, also known as bok choy. In Chinese, the word for "vegetable" is choi, which is the same word for cabbage, so we get some idea of the enormity of the category.

Kohlrabi (also known as cabbage turnip and stem cabbage) is a member of the same species. Its tender leaves -- delicious stir-fried or raw in salads -- are usually missing by the time the vegetable reaches the market, but the swollen stem has a natural sweetness that is excellent raw as well as lightly steamed. Usually white or ivory-colored, kohlrabi also comes in pink to lavender varieties, with graceful names like Purple Danube and Early Vienna.

Altogether, these cabbages provide a vast culinary resource. With an infinite number of cabbages, we could always make superlative coleslaw (try a Savoy), pickled cabbage (use one of the reds or purples) or a fragrant stir-fry (look for baby bok choy). The cabbage has a place in almost every cuisine from Korean kim chee, German sauerkraut, and Irish colcannon, to New England corned beef and cabbage. Kohlrabi is popular in Austrian, German, and Eastern European soups and stews; in Chinese dishes, where it often substitutes for the similar-tasting Chinese broccoli; and in the American South, where it joins any gathering of mixed boiled greens. Mrs. Rorer's Philadelphia Cook Book (1886) advised cooking it in any recipe for turnips or serving it uncooked and sliced, like radishes. In the first cookbook written by an American (1796), Amelia Simmons addressed the subject with a certain helplessness: "Cabbage requires a page, they are so multifarious." They are also not her favorite multifarious vegetable, as we may surmise from her next comment: "If grown in an old town and in old gardens, they have a rankness, which at times, may be perceived by a fresh air traveller."

This "rankness," as she calls it, was no discovery of hers. For centuries, the highly odoriferous quality of cabbage has kept it from gracing polite dinner tables, especially if the tables are located anywhere near the kitchen. A boiling cabbage head is no secret to any nearby nose. The fact that modern science has explained such antisocial emissions as simply a release of hydrogen sulfide fails to render them any the more fragrant. In fact, the longer cabbage is cooked, the greater the amount of hydrogen sulfide produced. This is not exactly news, as we can tell from the ancient Greek saying "Cabbage twice cooked is death."

Naturally, the clever cook has always known what cabbage needs. According to the 1803 Almanach des Gourmands, when cooking cabbage, "Everything depends on the seasoning. It is thus that the most vulgar phrases are ennobled by the pen of a great poet." Closer to home, Mrs. Rorer advised boiling young cabbage for one hour, older cabbage for two, always with a piece of chili pepper "to diminish the unpleasant odor."

Despite these olfactory drawbacks, cabbage has been quite popular for the last 2,500 years. La Varenne, chef to Henry IV and France's first important gastronomic writer, included five recipes for cabbage in his seminal work, Le Cuisinier Francais (1651). The Romans cultivated it and some of them, like Cato, ate it before and after meals, a practice he advised to his countrymen: "It will make you feel as if you had not eaten," he assured them, "and you can drink as much as you like."

Because of its more delicate nature, kohlrabi has escaped much of this controversy. It has also escaped the notice of a fair number of cooks. Richard Gehman's The Haphazard Gourmet designated it "most underrated vegetable" -- a dubious honor we hereby hope to rectify.

Consumer and Cooking Guide

Market Selection
Cabbage varieties include green, red, Savoy, and Napa.
Kohlrabi is generally green, but newer varieties of red kohlrabi are available. The outer leaves of cabbage should be blemish-free and have good color for the variety. Cabbages should feel heavy and compact. Kohlrabi should have smallish firm bulbs with fresh-looking leaves.

Cabbage-year-round; kohlrabi-June through November

Both may be refrigerated in plastic bags for up to 1 week.

Flavor Enhancers
Apples, pears, raisins, curry, caraway, dill

one 1 1/2 pound cabbage = 8 cups, shredded

Nutritional Value
Good source of vitamin C and potassium
20 calories per cup-cabbage
40 calories per cup-kohlrabi

Basic Cooking Methods
Cook, cut into wedges, in boiling salted water for about 10 minutes.
Steam for 12 minutes.

Caramelized Cabbage with Farfalle
serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer

3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons oil
I large sweet onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 head Savoy or green cabbage, cored and shredded
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons poppy seed
1/4 pound farfalle noodles, freshly cooked and drained

In a large skillet, heat the butter and oil. Cook the onion until very soft, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cabbage and cook until limp, about 5 minutes. Stir in the sugar and continue cooking until the cabbage turns golden-brown, about 20 minutes. Stir in the pepper and poppy seed and toss with the farfalle.

Kohlrabi-Mushroom Soup
serves 4

3 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
4 cups chicken stock
4 small kohlrabi, peeled and sliced
salt and pepper
2 teaspoons fresh dill

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil. Cook the onion, garlic, and mushroom over medium-high heat until the mushroom begins to color. Stir in the tomato and cook for another 3 minutes. Add the stock, bring to a boil, and add the kohlrabi. Lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the dill.

Napa Cabbage and Carrot Slaw with Toasted Sesame Seeds
serves 6

3 carrots, shredded
1 small head Napa cabbage, shredded
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup toasted sesame seed

In a large bowl, combine the carrot, cabbage, onion, and cilantro. Combine the remaining ingredients, except the sesame seed, until blended and toss with the cabbage mixture. Sprinkle with sesame seed.

Marinated Kohlrabi and Carrots
serves 6 to 8

6 small kohlrabi, peeled and cut into matchsticks
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1/2 Cup olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and pepper

Cook the kohlrabi and carrot in boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain well and place in a jar or bowl. Whisk together the remaining ingredients. Pour over the vegetables and cover. Refrigerate for 48 hours, stirring the vegetables occasionally.

Drain some of the marinade before serving. Serve as part of an antipasto platter or as a salad.

Caraway Cabbage with Potatoes and Sausage
serves 6

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter or oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
I medium head Savoy or green cabbage, coarsely shredded
4 medium red potatoes, scrubbed and sliced
2 tablespoons caraway seed
1/2 cup beef or chicken stock
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
1 pound Polish sausage, sliced
2 tablespoons hot-sweet mustard
Salt and pepper

In a large skillet, heat the butter. Add theonion and cabbage and cook until wilted. Add the potato, caraway, stock, and vinegar. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 12 minutes. Add the sausage and cook, uncovered, for another 6 minutes. Stir in the mustard and season with salt and pepper.

Red Cabbage, Green Apples, and Crisp Bacon
serves 6 to 8

1/2 pound bacon strips, halved
1 large head red cabbage, cored and shredded
2 large green apples, cored and sliced
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup red wine
Salt and pepper

Cook the bacon strips until crisp. Remove and reserve. Remove all but 4 tablespoons of the bacon fat from the pan and add the cabbage. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes.

Stir in the remaining ingredients and simmer, covered, for about 1 hour. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Just before serving, sprinkle with the reserved bacon.


Jeannette & Louise are Bay Area freelance food writers and the authors of several books including Sweet Onions & Sour Cherries and A Good Day for Soup.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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