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Cabbage – A Journey

Jordan Wright
The Georgetowner/Downtowner
December 2009

Cabbages and carrots with dill and Granny Smith apple - photo by Jordan Wright

Cabbages and carrots with dill and Granny Smith apple - photo by Jordan Wright

Consider the humble cabbage. After a soul-stirring dish of sarmale lovingly prepared by my Romanian acquaintance, Madame Pourchot, I thought long and hard on its cross-cultural worth. Sarmale are simple fare, cabbage rolls, stuffed with ground pork, beef or veal and rice then slow-cooked with tomatoes and herbs. A vegetarian version replaces the meat with carrots, mushrooms and Parmesan and loses nothing in tender sublimity. The pilgrimage-worthy menu began with Hungarian mushroom and potato soup cradling a dollop of sour cream, then latkes, crisp potato pancakes with applesauce on the side, then both the meat and vegetarian versions of sarmale and plenty of hearty oat bread and sweet butter. The meal was crowned with a fluffy rum-infused ginger marmalade bread pudding with sultanas.

Madame Pourchot served this simple yet elegant dinner last week to over thirty guests whose eyes grew wide with amazement, with several pleading in earnest to be adopted by her, before the last fork was set down. Oh, yes, I was one of the potential adoptees!

Spices frequently used in preparing cabbage - Juniper berries, Hungarian paprika, fennel seed, white pepper and bay leaves - photo by Jordan Wright

Spices frequently used in preparing cabbage - Juniper berries, Hungarian paprika, fennel seed, white pepper and bay leaves - photo by Jordan Wright

There is a place for cabbage in nearly every culture. Syria calls cabbage rolls mihshi malfuf and uses lamb, seasoned with allspice, mint and pomegranate molasses. Ukranians call it holubtsi and top it with a cheesy béchamel sauce. In the late 14th C the legendary chef Taillevent convinced King Charles V to eat his first cabbage – a matter of historical significance and recordation. One of France’s most traditional dishes showcases the earthy flavors of choucroute, the hearty Alsatian dish made with pork, duck, sausages and sauerkraut. Scented with bay leaves, caraway seeds and juniper berries and served with grainy pommery or tarragon mustard it is a peasant’s dish fit for a king.

Contemporary cooks can claim a working knowledge of Asian cabbages like bok choy and Napa. But sauerkraut can be traced back to Chinese “sour cabbage”, cabbage soaked in rice wine in order to preserve it for the winter. Think Korean kimchi, with its infinite pickled varieties. Health magazine named it as one of its top five, “World’s Healthiest Foods”.

Hearty crusted breads - photo by Jordan Wright

Hearty crusted breads - photo by Jordan Wright

From Lorenza de’ Medici’s cookbook, “The Renaissance of Italian Cooking” I found cabbage rolls from the Lombardy region called involtini di verza, from Marcella Hazan, salsicce col cavolo nero, sausages with black cabbage, though she translates that to red cabbage for the American cook. In the Tuscan region of Italy cavolo nero, the rare black cabbage or kale, is much preferred. It is a prehistoric wild plant. When the central stalk is harvested mini-black cabbages are produced on it resembling a corsage.

“Please to the Table – A Russian Cookbook” by Anya Von Bremzen and John Welchman describe Moldavian verza cu brinza, green cabbage baked with feta, and kislosladkaya krasnaya kapusta, a dish of sweet and sour red cabbage stewed in cherry vinegar with onions, cloves, apples and nutmeg…the perfect accompaniment to roast goose or pork.

To some the bouquet of cabbage cooking is anything but beckoning. Corned beef and cabbage comes to mind. But to others it harkens the origins of gastronomic civilization when meats were flung onto the fire and vegetables added in communal ritual to fill out the stewpot. Now ethno-botanical research has shed light on Bronze Age lake dwellers around Lake Zurich who ate cabbage.

German-style sauerkraut with wine - photo by Jordan Wright

German-style sauerkraut with wine - photo by Jordan Wright

Cabbage was thought to have originated in the Mediterranean regions where Egyptians raised altars to it, and Greeks and Romans believed it cured every disease from paralysis to pleurisy, including hangovers, a suggestion not to be ignored! In fact there are more myths and mysteries surrounding cabbages dating as far back as the third century B.C. Babies are said to have been found under the spreading leaves and we all know the fairy tale depictions of the stork in mailman’s cap, beak clamped down on a cloth sling wrapped around a newborn, and flying over the proverbial cabbage patch. Do Cabbage Patch Kids ring a bell?

Thomas Jefferson raised twenty-two varieties of cabbage in his magnificent gardens at Monticello. But his pride and joy was the Savoy cabbage. I’ll raise a toast to that! A more noble vegetable can hardly be found and I recommend it to the cook, as that is the preferred variety in Europe.

So enjoy your brassica oleracea capitata any way you prefer. One of my recipes, and the meat version of Madame Pourchot’s, follows.

Chef Jordan Wright

1 ½ pounds of Savoy or green cabbage trimmed and shredded by knife into ¼ inch strips
2 Granny Smith apples, cored and thinly sliced or chopped
1 or more tablespoons of caraway seeds
1 cup of golden raisins or dried cranberries
¼ cup of chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
Sea salt and fresh cracked white pepper to taste

Make a vinaigrette of apple cider vinegar, honey and light olive oil or canola and a bit of lemon juice. Pour over slaw and refrigerate for an hour. Toss with parsley and serve cold with pork, duck, sausages or turkey.


1 large jar of pickled cabbage leaves * or one large head of cabbage plus one package of sauerkraut (half to place on the bottom of the pot and half over the top of the rolls)
1 pound each of ground pork, beef and veal from the farmers market
1 large onion, chopped
4 or more garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons each of thyme, oregano and parsley (less if using dried)
1 cup of rice, rinsed
2 tablespoons of Celtic salt
2 tablespoons of fresh cracked black pepper
1 large 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes or, in summer, three cups of fresh chopped tomatoes, peel and all

* Pickled cabbage leaves are sold at the Cosmopolitan Grill on Route 1 south of Old Town Alexandria or the Russian Gourmet in Reston, Rockville, McLean and Alexandria.

Mix these ingredients together for the first stage.

Stuff into pickled cabbage leaves (or you can make your own). Take about a tablespoon of the mixture and place it into the cabbage leaf. Wrap the leaf around the filling, turning in the sides as you roll up, and place tightly together into a deep pot that has been prepared with oil and a layer of shredded cabbage and chopped bacon or ham. Line them up around the pot in layers. When you are done cover with additional shredded cabbage or sauerkraut (the sourer the better) and ½ cup of oil and bacon or ham and peppercorns, oregano and thyme. Cover and boil for two hours over low to medium heat.

Taste one and, if the rice is done, add the tomatoes and simmer over low heat, or in the oven without a lid, until the top caramelizes. Serve with sour cream or plain, thick yogurt.

Sarmale are the traditional dish for all holidays, especially Christmas. According to Madame Pourchot, the smaller the sarma the more skilled you are as a cook! “Poftat buna!” she says, Romanian for bon appetit!

For questions, comments or additional recipes contact [email protected] or visit

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