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Beyond Coleslaw: Creative Recipes for Cabbage

By Kathy Gunst, "Cabbage Craft," March/April 2014

Cookbook author Kathy Gunst shares the inspiration behind her fresh and healthy cabbage recipes.

It’s funny how tastes change. As a kid my relationship with cabbage began and ended at the neighborhood deli. I loved creamy coleslaw piled on corned beef sandwiches and pungent sauerkraut on grilled hot dogs. But the steamed, terribly odoriferous cabbage served along with corned beef at my friend’s house held no appeal. Then in 2011, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It was a terrible time. But as often happens with adversity much good came out of it. The shock of being told that I had cancer led me to make changes in my life, including taking a serious look at my diet.

My doctor recommended that I stop eating many foods that I love while I underwent treatments. No dairy, gluten or white sugar, he advised. In other words, no gooey ripe cheeses, no crispy French baguettes and no sweet chocolate desserts. Sure, I thought, I feel like crap, why not take away all my pleasures? But what I discovered was a new appreciation for vegetables and salads and certain foods I thought I hated.

When you research “cancer-fighting foods” cabbage is one ingredient that almost always pops up. Research shows that when you chop, chew or briefly cook this brassica it produces potent anti-cancer compounds called isothiocyanates.

Cabbage is also a great source of vitamins K (which is important for bone health) and C, all for very few calories. Savoy and red cabbage boast healthy amounts of beta carotene—and the vibrant purple hue of red cabbage comes from heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory phytochemicals called anthocyanins.

I started incorporating cabbage into my diet in a variety of new ways. Not just the deli slaw of my childhood, but shredded into all manner of salads. Cabbage is enormously adaptable. I ate it raw, sautéed, pickled, fermented and roasted with flavors and spices from Korea, China, France and other cabbage-loving countries.

The crunch and the juiciness of fresh, raw cabbage suddenly held huge appeal. I also loved how, after hours in a sauté pan with just a touch of olive oil set over very low, slow heat, the cabbage became almost buttery. When I added it to soups and stews, I was amazed at the way it brought flavor and texture, but never quite took over.

I developed a Korean-style “taco,” substituting raw red cabbage leaves as the taco shell filled with sautéed cabbage and onions, topped with Korean-flavored grilled skirt steak. Then there’s my riff on an old Jewish favorite, stuffed cabbage leaves (this time Savoy leaves wrapped around a fragrant filling of rice, mushrooms and vegetables in a light sweet-and-sour tomato sauce) and a simple recipe for making sauerkraut at home.

The good news is that my cancer is gone. I am one of the lucky ones. My life feels fuller, more conscious, healthier. My awareness of what matters is higher. Among the changes: watching what I eat and enjoying it all more than ever.

Now instead of missing gooey cheeses (oh how I longed for a triple-crème), I find myself reinventing old favorite dishes. Like the coleslaw of my youth. Today’s version: raw, thinly sliced red cabbage tossed in a mustard-laced vinaigrette with maple syrup-glazed walnuts and just a bit of luxurious crumbled blue cheese. So satisfying it’s almost decadent. After years of thinking I hated it, cabbage has found a permanent (and loving) place in my diet.

Cookbook author Kathy Gunst is “Resident Chef” on NPR’s Here & Now. Her most recent book is Notes from a Maine Kitchen (Down East Books).



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