Seeking comfort in the arms of cabbage
The Golden Girls had their cheesecake. Garfield had his lasagna. But for me, a nutritionist with Eastern European roots and a budget, cabbage has emerged as the lead comfort food contender as the weather turns cool and I yearn for something warm, soft, sorta sweet but still savory… and yes, healthy, too.
OK, let’s not be too literal here. While I did roll up a big batch of vegetarian stuffed cabbage, my cruciferous dalliances this week have also included Brussels Sprouts–in all their soft and roasted and caramelized glory (they look like baby cabbages, after all). It’s autumn… the time of year when cruciferous vegetables of all colors (think purple cabbage and cauliflower to orangey rutabaga), shapes (think psychadelic broccoflower with its gothic spires) and sizes (think baby brussels) take center plate. Who says cold-weather produce is boring?
Cabbage: the Nutritious Pater Familias of the Cruciferous family
Cabbage is the symbolic head of the family (pun not intended, but still funny, no?) of cruciferous vegetables, also called Brassica vegetables. The family is a descendant of the the mustard plant family, and its tree has branches that include leafy veggies like kale, collard greens and watercress; stalky flowering plants like broccoli, cauliflower and their bizarre love-child, Romanesco (aka- Broccoflower); root vegetables like turnips and rutabaga; as well as cabbage-eque type leafy heads, like kohlrabi, bok choy and brussels sprouts. (I apologize to any biology teachers out there who are no doubt cringing at my unscientific taxonomic descriptions; what they lack in scientific rigor, they make up for in utility.) These various expressions of cabbageness each feature their own nutritional highlights, and will receive their 15 minutes of blog fame in due time.
Cabbage itself is an excellent source of Vitamin C (which it starts to lose once it’s cut, so it’s best to buy whole heads and cut them yourself than to buy pre-shredded slaw mixes for convenience). If you’re making cabbage soup or otherwise braising cabbage, the Vitamin C will leach out but remain in the broth/sauce for you to enjoy; however, if you’re boiling cabbage in water and then tossing the cooking liquid, you’ll lose out on much of the Vitamin C content. Best to steam it or saute it for a short period of time (less than 5 minutes) to retain the vitamin content and help keep your immune system tip-top until health insurance reform is a done deal. (Full confession: the recipe that follows below does not exactly heed this advice.)
What distinguishes cabbage (and its other cruciferous relatives) nutritionally from many other vegetables is a group of phytochemicals called glucosinolates. These particular phytochemicals have been demonstrated to be some of the most effective cancer-fighting compounds in the food supply, and as a result, epidemiological research has consistently shown that eating at least 3 servings per week of cruciferous vegetables is linked to a significantly lower risk of developing certain cancers, such as lung, prostate, colon and bladder, and possibly also breast and ovarian. The way this family of phytocehmicals exerts its anti-cancer effect is by up-regulating the genes that code for multiple naturally-occurring enzymes in our liver which are responsible for detoxifying toxic compounds and carcinogens. In this way, cruciferous vegetables are among the best “detox” foods one could eat (take THAT, juice fasts!)… not to mention that their high fiber content helps your body to physically remove toxic waste from the body by keeping things “moving along” in the intestines.
1 cup of cooked cabbage has about 30 calories, 7g of carbohydrate (3.5 of which is fiber), 50% of your daily Vitamin C needs and 92% of your daily Vitamin K, which you need for proper blood clotting and bone mineralization. (Speaking of: If you’re taking the blood thinning medication coumadin (warfarin), best not to start on a cabbage soup diet without consulting your doctor, as the high Vitamin K content will counteract the medication’s anti-coagulation effect.) All this AND a cancer-fighting benefit, you ask? Could cabbage be any perfecter?
Why yes, in fact. Cabbage (and its relatives) is also a respectable source of highly-bioavailable calcium:
- Chinese mustard greens (Gai choy) appear to be the best cruciferous source of calcium; 1 cup chopped has the same amount of bioavailable calcium as a cup of milk.
- 2-2.5 cups of raw bok choy (it cooks down considerably, so don’t be put off) contains about the same amount of bioavailable calcium as a cup of milk, and is considerably easier to find than aforementioned gai choy
- Generally speaking, 1 cup of your standard raw cruciferous vegetable, including cabbage, will provide anywhere from 5-10% of your daily calcium needs, depending on the variety
Recipe: Vegetarian Stuffed Cabbage
My mom makes an amazing stuffed cabbage in a sweet and sour tomato-based sauce; it’s one of her favorite comfort foods (ah, genetics…) While I look forward to indulging in her version–stuffed with ground beef and rice– once or twice a year when she makes it for the holidays, I prefer to keep things on the more vegetarian side when I cook and eat at home. To that end, I tracked down this interesting Middle Eastern recipe for cabbage stuffed with a blend of rice and chickpeas, which was surprisingly easy to make.
A few notes on the recipe:
- As written, it will serve 8-10 people… not 6 as the author generously suggests. If you want to serve 4-5 people, halve the filling recipe and use 12 cabbage leaves instead of 24, which you will easily get out of a medium head of cabbage (plus a few more to have extras, as some will tear). But keep the quantities the same for the finishing sauce, as halving it is a bit too stingy.
- By way of clarification, the rice for the filling should be raw, not cooked. Be sure to add adequate salt to the filling mixture so the rice doesn’t cook up too bland.
- If you use canned diced tomatoes for the filling, why not use some of the leftover tomato liquid in lieu of some of the water to simmer the stuffed cabbage rolls in? It will add some nice tangy flavor and replace some of the Vitamin C lost from the brutal waterboarding you subjected your cabbage leaves to.
- If you don’t have dried mint in your spice rack for the finishing sauce, you can open up a tea-bag of herbal peppermint tea and use that
- For tips on rolling technique, check out my previous post on making stuffed Grape Leaves; it’s an almost-identical process. And a similar flavor profile, now that I think of it.
- When you make the rolls, don’t be concerned that they look much smaller than you’d expect–around the size of a single stuffed grape leaf, in fact. They plump way up and the rolls seal themselves quite well during the cooking process.