A Noble Family of Vegetables

cabbage, brassica, cauliflower, cruciferous, heart health, cardiovascular, anthocyanin

At this time of year, it is a little trickier than in the summer to get your fill of fresh fruit and veg to cover your needs for vitamins, especially vitamin C, and minerals, such as magnesium. But only a little. Even in the winter and even in Northern Europe, there are fresh local crops that provide the nutrition we need.

Now in season are Brussels sprouts, white and red cabbage, kale and cauliflower, with purple sprouting broccoli joining them soon (in January). All of the above are members of the Brassica family and have similar properties, which I have written about last year in a blog post about the lovely little Brussels sprouts.

Cabbage and its relatives are not getting very much credit as a delicacy, because it reminds many of school dinners with overcooked, smelly and soggy cabbage. It doesn’t have to be that way. Cooked right, cabbage can be delicious.

So, how do you cook it right? To avoid the pungent smell and sogginess, cabbage is best cooked very briefly and with as little water as possible. Slice it into ribbons or shred in a food processor and then either stir-fry or steam. If you don’t have a steamer, use your widest lidded pan, pour just a little water in the bottom (it doesn’t have to, in fact shouldn’t cover the cabbage) and cook very quickly, just so that it is just soft.

Red cabbage – a pretty type of cabbage that is rich in anthocyanin – is lovely when cooked long and slowly. In my native Germany, it is popular to go with the traditional Christmas dinner of goose and potato dumplings. Traditionally, it is cooked with cloves, cinnamon and chopped apples. But sliced raw red cabbage also makes a beautiful addition to a winter salad, where it goes well with winter leaves such as lambs lettuce and sliced orange. Anthocyanin is a phytonutrient with antioxidant properties. It is the pigment that gives the cabbage its vibrant colour, the same as is found in blueberries, red grapes and beetroot. Anthocyanin fights free radicals and has anti-inflammatory effects, so red cabbage (and similar coloured fruit and veg) help protect us from heart disease. Apart from anthocyanin though red cabbage is also a good source of the vitamins and minerals we need, including vitamin C and K, calcium, magnesium, potassium. It also contains beta-carotenes, the precursor to vitamin A, including eye- and skin-healthy lutein and zeaxanthin.

Cabbage won’t break the bank, and white and red cabbage even keep really well for quite some time – unlike cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts, which should be eaten as soon as possible after purchase. You’ll find the best deals at your local farmers’ market or the green grocers, who also thankfully sell kale still on its stems. Supermarkets usually sell bagged, chopped kale, but it gets chopped with the stem on, which means that there will always be that hard bit in each bite.

Here some ideas on what to do with it:

  • Cut a white (or red) cabbage in half and then slice thinly. Steam the strips and then smother in (homemade) pesto for a super low-carb meal.
  • Strip kale leaves off the stem and then use either in a salad – massage the dressing in and then let it sit for a little while, the leaves will become much softer – or to make kale chips. Chop and add to pasta with some roasted squash and goat’s cheese; or add it to a hearty white bean soup.
  • Steam chopped kale or stir-fry, seasoned with a teaspoon of toasted sesame oil and tamari, sprinkle with toasted sesame. This works well with sliced white or red cabbage, too.
  • Sauerkraut is excellent food for gut health, but make sure that it is raw, not cooked. The kind you find in supermarkets – whether in jars or plastic bags – is usually cooked. Some health food shops sell raw sauerkraut, but if you want raw sauerkraut, i. e. with live bacteria, you’ll most likely have to make your own.

Note: Avoid raw cabbage, incl. coleslaw, if you have thyroid problems, particularly when iodine levels are low. Most members of the cabbage family contain goitrogens, naturally occurring compounds that interfere with the function of the thyroid. Cooking deactivates goitrogens, so cooked Brassica are fine. If your dietary iodine levels are low, you can top them up by consuming sea vegetables, seafood and iodised salt.