Everyday heroes: cabbage

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A tour of Borough’s many cabbage varieties and how to get the best of them

Cabbage is not the first ingredient that comes to mind when we think about fine food. At best you might think of it as a cheap ingredient used to bulk out heavy winter stews; at worst you may be traumatised by memories of it slopped on the side of the plate after being boiled to a colour not found elsewhere in nature. Cabbage used to be something we ate because we had been told it was good for us, but this much maligned vegetable has much to offer.

A stroll around Borough Market’s greengrocers will reveal a multitude of varieties: hispi, savoy, black, green, red, white and Chinese, among others. They vary in colour, texture, size and flavour, and can be cooked using a range of techniques. “You can cook cabbages in lots of different ways,” says Gary from Elsey & Bent, “but whatever you do, don’t boil them to death.”

Borough Market demonstration chef Luke Robinson loves cabbage as an ingredient because of its versatility. “There are so many different varieties and each one brings something different to a dish,” he says. “I have a very simple recipe which works well with a hispi—also known as a pointed heart cabbage—which is a fantastic way of cooking cabbage as an accompaniment to fish.” Take the outer leaves off, cut the cabbage in half from top to bottom, then into quarters with the stalk still on, as this holds it all together. Heat some oil in a pan over a high heat, then lay the cabbage with one of the flat sides down. “Season it with some salt, a smashed clove of garlic, a bit of thyme and cook until that face starts to caramelise. Add some butter and a little splash of wine or water, stick a lid on it, still on quite a high heat, and steam the rest of the cabbage until cooked. That caramelised face gives it a lovely flavour.”

A winter salad
Another dish Luke suggests comes from Poland and uses white cabbage, though you can experiment with other types. Remove the root and the core, flatten it and cut it into thin slices. Add equal amounts of thinly sliced kohlrabi, carrot and apple, then put it all in a bowl with a good pinch of salt and a sprinkle of sugar. Add a generous glug of good quality white wine vinegar and some oil, give it a thorough mix, then set it aside. “The combination of oil, vinegar and seasonings softens the vegetables and gives a really nice winter salad,” says Luke. “It is fantastic as a side to some mackerel or a grilled piece of meat.”

Old favourites include braised red cabbage with either wine or vinegar and some spices such as cloves and nutmeg, as well as warming cabbage soups, which range from the classic blend of savoy cabbage, diced potato, vegetable stock and a dumpling or two, to this hearty version of zuppa di cavolo val dostana from the late, great Antonio Carluccio, which sees cabbage served with generous helpings of fontina cheese and Alpine butter. For a modern take on your usual roast-bird-and-greens Sunday lunch, try Nicole Pisani’s Middle Eastern-inspired guinea fowl with mujadara lentils and roast cabbage, or if it’s a light, wintry side you’re after, give Yasmin Khan’s zippy red cabbage, beetroot and date salad a go.