The Mighty Cabbage
Cabbage isn’t elegant, like asparagus. It isn’t trendy like kale, silky like avocado, or meaty like mushrooms. Cabbage is the workhorse of the vegetable world; it’s versatile, easy to cook, nutritious, and cheap. Cabbage gets the job done.
Having grown up as a very finicky eater, I had to make a conscious decision to introduce many (well actually, most) foods into my diet. But cabbage kind of snuck up on me. I never made the decision to start eating it. One day I had chicken soup at a friend’s and it was really good — memorably good. I wondered if it had anything to do with that lettuce-y stuff that was mixed in. It took me a few days to realize that the mystery ingredient was cabbage. (Yes, I did indeed think about that soup for a few days after. Uh-huh, and I still do.)
Oh. So I liked cabbage. I didn’t encounter a lot of opportunities to order it in restaurants, though, so I began cooking it for myself. Cabbage is now a favorite food of mine, at once pedestrian and special. The more I cook with it, the more I’m inspired to find new ways to use it.
I recently discovered a simple, inventive option in Vikas Khanna’s marvelous “Flavors First” from Lake Isle Press: Cabbage with Mushrooms in Turmeric-infused Butter. I grew up in an Irish-American household, and though my mother never made corned beef and cabbage, I have always placed cabbage squarely in the ballpark of Irish, or Western, cuisine. I had never associated it with Indian food.
This dish sounded mighty tasty — except for the mushrooms (which I won’t eat). I used green peas instead. The recipe suggests them as an alternative, so I didn’t even have to cheat. I was intrigued by the combination of cabbage with turmeric, a spice I’ve become quite enthusiastic about recently. I even replaced a twenty-year stash with a fresh bottle, so you know I’m serious.
I had all the ingredients I needed on hand if I subbed yellow mustard seeds for black, which I did. I get quite a deep sense of satisfaction when I can make a meal without going to the store to pick up any ingredients; it makes me feel so very savvy and competent. Don’t say it, I know I’m well past the age when I should get a kick out of that.
This recipe is so very easy, and so very good. The texture of the cooked cabbage, the flavor from the spice blend, the unexpected burst from the green peas (fill in the blank if you use mushrooms), all work together so naturally. I served it on its own for lunch, and then again with jasmine rice, and as a side dish with roast chicken. Definitely a keeper, I’ll make this again.
Even though it’s simple, I picked up a few pointers from cooking this recipe. First, when frying mustard seeds, perhaps a lid on the pot is a good idea. Those suckers pop all over the place. And second, when a recipe tells you to add the juice of one whole lemon, it says that for a reason. I was stingy with the lemon juice at first, and the dish had a slightly bitter aftertaste. I added more lemon: bitterness gone.
In addition to the vast satisfaction I derived from the rises-from-the-depth-of-your-pantry thing, I am so happy that this recipe taught me to consider cabbage as an ingredient for Eastern cuisines. I’m thinking I might try a cabbage pad thai, or maybe a curry. Seems to me that cabbage, raw or cooked, can be combined with about anything. You think I’m exaggerating? I just googled cabbage ice cream. Yup, that’s a thing.
On the surface, cabbage is plain and maybe a little boring. But it has hidden depths. It can roll with the punches, adapt and transform while staying true to its essential nature. You go, cabbage. There’s a lesson in that.
Cabbage and Mushrooms in Turmeric-Infused Butter
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 cloves garlic, minced
One 1-inch-long piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 small green cabbage (about 1 1/2 pounds), cored and shredded
1 cup thinly sliced button mushrooms, cleaned (or green peas)
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon salt
Juice of 1 lemon
Naan or basmati rice for serving
Serves 4 to 6
1. Heat the butter in a medium wok or skillet with a lid over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and fry until crackling, about 2 minutes. Add the cumin seeds and cook until darker in color and fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the garlic, ginger, and turmeric and cook until the garlic begins to brown, about 2 minutes. Add the cabbage, mushrooms, garam masala, cayenne, and salt and stir until all the ingredients are well combined. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the cabbage is tender, about 15 minutes, adding a few tablespoons of water if necessary.
2. Stir in the lemon juice, adjust the salt to taste, and serve hot.
Recipe reprinted from “Flavors First: An Indian Chef’s Culinary Journey” by Vikas Khanna, Lake Isle Press, 2011
Originally published at https://www.lakeislepress.com on August 5, 2020.