Poor cabbage. What’d it ever do to you? Yet except for maybe turnips or brussels sprouts (which don’t really count because they’re like mini-cabbages), cabbages are among the most hated of vegetables. Sure, it’s had a few moments. But mostly, I find myself attempting to stand up for my cruciferous friends, only to realize that no one is listening.
A few weeks ago, Ben, Chuck and a friend of ours were at a local hole-in-the-wall Salvadoran restaurant for lunch. They make a mean pupusa, but probably my favorite item from this place is what is relegated to a side dish (a garnish, really)–a vinegar-y cabbage slaw (? salad? I’m not sure what to call it) that’s topped with a swirl of chili sauce. It’s tangy and bright; cool and crisp. I have to try and keep myself from drinking the spicy dregs at the bottom of the humble paper tray that it’s served in.
As we sat down to eat that day, I ate that special slaw first. I was sorry when it was gone. Ben, probably noticing how morose I was, handed his to me, untouched. And in that moment I realized something: he must not like cabbage. How did I not know that?
“Do you not like cabbage?” I asked, innocently. “Not really,” he replied, warily. “But let me guess—it’s because I’ve never had it cooked the right way?” And you see, even though he’s a cabbage-hating impostor, he really knows me pretty well. When people tell me that they dislike a certain food, I like to gently suggest that they have simply never had it the right way.
Cabbage is the epitome of this problem. Consider two commonplace uses of cabbage: fake-mayonnaise-y cafeteria coleslaw, served straight out of five-gallon containers; and the boiled mess of cabbage that generally accompanies corned beef around St. Patrick’s day. Neither are particularly appetizing. Many are forced to eat both when they’re young and impressionable. No wonder people hold grudges. Little ol’ cabbage never had.a chance.
At its best, cabbage is snappy and vegetal, but with more substance than other green vegetables. Red cabbage is wonderfully peppery when raw. And cooking cabbage coaxes out a cautious sweetness. I know all these things, though. I set out to convince Ben.
The next weekend found me in the kitchen with a red cabbage and a mission. And this is what I came up with. The pesto shamelessly panders to Ben’s love of garlic (and bonus, I love creating food that is brightly-colored without containing something with a name like ‘red 3947′. Honestly, it looks like an Easter egg, doesn’t it?) The warm salad is something that I’d make for myself for lunch on a Saturday afternoon. The jury is still out because Ben hasn’t actually tried these yet; but I’d venture to say they might convert even some of the most stubborn cabbage haters.
Purple pesto pasta (Red cabbage pesto)
You will need
1/4 head red cabbage, chopped coarsely
Several tablespoons olive oil (it will depend on how large your cabbage is)
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons raw sunflower seeds
1 cup whole wheat penne (other pastas would work just fine)
Pulse cabbage, garlic, sunflower seeds and a few pinches of salt in food processor (it might work in blender, too–let me know if you try it).
Add olive oil in a thin stream through the food processor tube while pulsing, until the mixture forms a paste. (Because of cabbage’s texture, this will never reach the same pastiness of a basil pesto–as soon as it starts sticking together, you’re good.) Taste for salt, and add more if necessary.
Put a pot of water to boil. Cook penne in boiling water for 7 minutes or until al dente. Drain, reserving a bit of pasta water. Toss several spoonfuls of the purple pesto and pasta water with pasta in the still-warm pot. Top with toasted sunflower seeds (I also added some baby asparagus I had around, steamed).
**Updated, almost a year later** Based on feedback I’ve been getting from a few people, I want to say: go gradually with the garlic. This was back when I just started writing recipes and my cabbage amount is rather imprecise, I think. Depending on how big your head of cabbage is, you may need less garlic. So add some, taste, add more if necessary, etc.
Warm wheatberry & red cabbage salad
You will need
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, diced
1 cup dry wheat berries
1/2 red cabbage, thinly sliced
Red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons medium-bodied red wine
Goat cheese, crumbled
Boil 2 cups water. Add wheatberries and reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, for about an hour, but keep an eye on it. When wheat berries are chewy-tender, remove from heat.
Heat olive oil in a well-seasoned (or non-stick if you’re not a toxin-phobe like some of us…) skillet. Add shallot, and cook, stirring, until fragrant and beginning to brown. Add a pinch of red pepper flakes.
Add cabbage and stir. Heat until just beginning to wilt. Taste, and salt if necessary. Stir in wine and let sizzle for a couple minutes. Drain any liquid from wheat berries, and stir the wheat berries into the cabbage. Remove from heat. Taste for salt again, and add if necessary.
To serve, top with crumbled goat cheese and a drizzle of good olive oil.