By Celia Barbour
The time has come for cabbage, hasn’t it? Yes. Yes, I think it has.
Not for the sake of self-punishment: That would be premature, what with a month of edible sins ahead. Though if you are already inclined towards penitent eating, cabbage is an excellent place to start, as it has potential to be one of the grimmest foods ever. Overboiled, it is a dish of despair, evidenced by its frequent appearance in Soviet-era apartment complexes and Dickensian novels. And the trauma it can inflict runs deep: My friend Frances says that even in his old age, her father-in-law, a Brit, used to grow pale and trembly if anyone so much as mentioned cabbage in his presence. He had attended boarding school as a boy, and could never quite bring himself to discuss the exact nature of the cabbage sadism performed there.
My memories of cabbage are entirely opposite. As a child, I adored my mother’s cabbage rolls the way kids today revere macaroni and cheese from a box, and I begged her to make them for special occasions. I loved watching her gently lower two of those ample dumplings onto the plate before me, the translucent, tender cabbage leaves revealing glimpses of the sausage-like meat and rice within.
I have never made cabbage rolls myself (eureka! I have a goal for winter!), but as an adult, I’ve embraced cabbage for a host of other reasons. It is cheap and versatile. It keeps forever in the fridge. It’s incredibly good for you — a mere cup has more than half the Vitamin C you need in a day. And, oh yes, it could save your life — in one study, Polish women who’d immigrated to Michigan were found to experience a fourfold increase in their incidence of breast cancer versus women back home; researchers linked it to a decline in their consumption of cabbage.
All well and good. But I must confess that, for me, cabbage’s killer app is that it is very low in calories (22 per cup, when not stuffed with meat and rice). Yes, I know this is horribly female of me, but there are times when, forgive me, lo-cal is enough. I mean, much as I’d like to, I can’t wear a comforter everywhere.
A few winters back, after a long morning writing at my desk, I shed my comforter and came downstairs craving something flavorful and filling, and decided that a forgotten green cabbage in the fridge would do the trick. I chopped it up, sautéed it, quite hot, in a smidge of canola oil, then finished it with sesame oil, tamari, and rice vinegar. It was so good I made it again later that week, adding a little minced ginger and garlic to the mix. After that, I made it fairly often, playing around with sliced scallions, toasted sesame seeds, siracha, rice.
One day, the kids caught me in the act — they had a half-day — and asked for bites. Immediately, their eyes narrowed in accusation: How dare I keep such a delicious dish all to myself? From then on, sautéed cabbage became a regular family lunch or after-school snack for us all. Even Dosi, my pickiest eater, likes the way the super-skinny strands of cabbage resemble noodles. (Just from reading the above you can make it, too. It’s a cinch to improvise.)
Still, my childhood adoration of cabbage inclines me to want to elevate it above the everyday, and so I also like to make this salad, which bedecks the humble cabbage in exotic finery fit for a queen: jewel-like pomegranate seeds, persimmon slices, honey, lime. It is lovely and fancy enough for company, but easy enough to whip up for my own private midday lunch. And, just in case, it’s ready to bestow caloric atonement on any who seek it.
Cabbage, pomegranate and persimmon salad
1½ cups julienned celery root, about half of a large root (see note)
2 cups shredded cabbage
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
juice and zest of one lime
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon honey
2 scallions, very thinly sliced
½ cup pomegranate seeds
1 small fuyu persimmon, thinly sliced
Note: Celery roots can look intimidating but aren’t hard to work with. Wash and dry, then with a sharp knife, cut off the root and stem ends (you may have to carve into some of the crevices with a paring knife). Then peel the skin with a potato peeler. To make julienne: slice very thinly, then lay slices flat (stack 3-4 at a time) and slice through in narrow, parallel lines.
Photos by C. Barbour