Early in coronavirus isolation, around the middle of March, The New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner turned away from a Zoom call to grab the chicken she had roasting. “It was like the golden light of heaven shining out of my oven,” she told HuffPost. But the gasps heard through the ether weren’t for the bird: they were about the schmaltzy cabbage underneath.
Cabbage popularity spikes each year around St. Patrick’s Day. But this year, instead of searches for the rugged green tumbling back to the usual year-round low levels, Google Trends shows that people kept looking for cabbage recipes through the end of March, into April, and even now. The summer sun brings strawberries into stores, yet Americans still want cabbage – 50% more than they did at this time last year.
Scrolling social media, the vegetable screams its too-cool-for-school status–under roasted chickens in Rosner’s version (codified and popularized by food blogger and comfort food queen Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen), butter-braised and tossed with pasta by The Takeout writer Allison Robicelli, in former Saveur editor Alex Testere’s illustrated newsletter, and even freshly plucked from the garden by Oprah herself.
But the vegetable of the moment lacks the usual eye-catching colors or over-the-top calorie count of most Instagram darlings. It cooks to the color of a dirty napkin and supplies health benefits galore. Packed with fiber and nutrients, cabbage climbed to the top of lockdown cooking popularity for the most utterly mundane reason: practicality. Cabbage lasts basically forever in the fridge, costs almost nothing and works just as well as a star centerpiece of a main dish or shredded and cooked down to near invisibility.
Eater writer Jaya Saxena saw the writing on the wall even before the pandemic, predicting in December that “cabbage is your next great vegetable crush.” Watching where it intersects with comfort, wellness and cuisines from around the world that so many Americans love to appropriate, along with a forecast economic recession, she warned: “Get ready to be sick of it by 2021.”
Rosner’s “cabbage epiphany” about the vegetable’s versatility and usefulness hit just a little earlier, during the romaine recalls, when an airport salad replaced the lettuce with thinly sliced cabbage. “That was the moment for me, when I switched it into my regular rotation,” she said.
Though Rosner has been cooking through a cabbage or two each week lately, one of the advantages of cabbage is that there is no need to do so. In “The Book of Greens,” chef Jenn Louis says that properly stored wrapped in plastic in the crisper drawer of a refrigerator, cabbage can last at least a month — far longer than most greens.
Cabbage shows up in Louis’s book brined in okonomiyaki (a Japanese savory pancake), rolled around arborio rice and pork, in a salad with carrot leaves and dates, in Irish-style colcannon, and ultra-sweet, charred with miso and lime. “I love how versatile it is,” she said, but she favors the deep flavors of roasting it. In summer, she recommends throwing it whole onto a campfire for an hour, then peeling away the outer leaves to eat the sweet inside.
“It’s such an underutilized ingredient,” said Maneet Chauhan, the Nashville-based chef and owner of Chauhan Ale & Masala House and others. At home, she shreds and sautes cabbage with curry leaf, turmeric and mustard seed. “It’s really typical,” she said of how she uses it in Indian cooking. A recent dish of cabbage kofta was a big hit with her kids – chopped, fried in a spiced chickpea batter, and served in a basic curry sauce. She always adds a cabbage and onion slaw to her flatbread rolls, includes it in her fried rice, and stuffs it into parathas, pancakes and omelets.
“You can really celebrate the texture,” Chauhan said of what she loves about cabbage – as long as you take care not to overcook it. “It should be just enough to get that crunch.” But she’s also drawn to what she describes as the slightly fruity, sulfur, oniony flavor. “It goes so well with Indian spices.”
Those flavors haven’t always been in favor. “Of course, if you prepare it by boiling it in the most boring possible way” Rosner said, “that’s when you get this farty, limp green garbage that merits being a punchline.” Like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and so many other vegetables that have had bad reputations in American popular culture, she noted, “if you cook it deliciously, it ends up being delicious.”
But that reputation isn’t completely unfounded. All that healthful fiber in cruciferous vegetables like cabbage also bring on gas in many cases. In Louis’s book, she even mentions that it was used as a laxative in ancient Greece. (In some people, cabbage also triggers migraines – but cabbage leaves can also relieve them.) But listen, most people are stuck inside right now, with the people who know them best. So, dig into a gratin, throw stir-fry over rice, or learn to make emergency kimchi. Because in the words of a great children’s book, “toot, toot, toot, I’m a train!”