Steamed Cabbage with Caraway

(It doesn’t stink up the kitchen, it’s inexpensive, and it’s good)
(c) 2013, Davd

For the second item in the Bachelor Cooking series, i’ll continue the frugal-hearty theme; and this time, ask those of you who don’t keep a herb-and-spice supply in your kitchen, to get caraway seed the next time you go to the store. It keeps well, so if the large size costs twice the price and contains five times the weight—buy large (well, up to 200-300 grams.) Sometimes the best prices on seasonings are in the bulk-food section, or at places like “Bulk Barn”… and you’ll enjoy food shopping more if you can quickly translate prices-and-sizes into kilo or litre prices. (Another good reason to learn arithmetic.)

If you don’t have a steaming basket, i suggest you buy one now. I have three of them, and many meals i cook have two baskets working (so if you see a steaming basket at a yard sale, or the price is really economical, get a total of two or three.) It stands inside a cooking pot and holds the cabbage—or broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, green-beans, spinach, chicken breast, cod, haddock, pink salmon, etc. etc.—above the boiling water or stock.

My point in listing so many foods that you can learn to “steam”—and the list is not complete—is to give you a first hint of the versatility of steaming as a technique. As this series progresses, you can learn some rather fine cooking—far short of enough to get you a chef’s ticket, but enough, when you get used to the techniques, that a chef would take you seriously if you were to go sell him some ingredients. Before we get to the
“presentation grade” dishes, though, we should have us a repertoire of good basic meals that we can rely on, share with our buddies, and when eating alone, cook once for two to five sittings.

Basic meals use basic foods; and except in South Coastal BC (maybe also the Outer Coast north of Campbell River and Tofino) there are four staple Canadian winter vegetables: Cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and turnips. Of the Basic Four, only cabbage grows above ground and “counts as a green vegetable”. All four keep well over winter—you can harvest them in October (September if you’re in Climate Zone 2) and eat them through winter and spring. During this autumn and the coming winter, i’m going to emphasize how to make them versatile—how to cook them (and eat cabbage, carrots, and turnips raw, as well) so that they don’t become boring. (Later on we’ll meet a few other good winter vegetables, one of which—beets—many of you already know.)

Cabbage is cheap compared to its cousins broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, it keeps better than they do (if the ‘fridge temperature is around 5C and the humidity is fairly high, it will keep for a month or two; and in a good root cellar, cabbages keep several months.) It is green, and more nourishing than turnips. And as you’ll read next, it is really two or three vegetables wrapped one around the other.

Steamed cabbage goes well with Sausage Soup (and with many other main-dishes). It also takes advantage of the structure of a cabbage: The outer leaves are a strong green colour and have a strong taste—they’re better cooked. The inner “heart” is a pale green and if the cabbage variety is mild, it makes a good munch, raw with a little salt. (Some kinds of cabbage are ‘sharp’ and their centres are less appealing raw; they can be briefly  steamed, stir-fried, or made into coleslaw or sauerkraut.) The dark leaves, in my humble opinion, always need cooking.

You could cook the whole cabbage at once, but the lighter the colour, the less cooking it needs—so cooking it all, together, doesn’t do justice to one layer or another.

The very darkest leaves are best used in stews (you can put some in Sausage Soup, cut small, too; and me-thinks many of you will like them that way); or used in hearty relishes. The medium-green leaves can be steamed (and as you’ll see later, used in stir-fry.) The pale, tight-packed “heart” leaves can be sliced or can be shredded and made into coleslaw… even sauerkraut, but that’s a more complicated technique that i won’t be writing about for months yet.

To “butcher a cabbage”, i first quarter it.* One cut goes from the stem end to the opposite end; the other cut can go through the middle or again, from the stem to the opposite end. Each quarter will have that pale green “heart” which i suggest you separate with a small knife (“paring knife”, “utility knife”) and put in a clear plastic bag—cabbage keeps well in the fridge, so you’ll have 1-3 weeks to eat it. The quarters might have very dark green outer leaves, or the store might have taken those off. If there are very dark green outer leaves, i suggest you cut them off and put them also, in a clear** plastic bag—which can be the same one where you put the “heart quarters”, if you prefer—to use later in soups and stews.

OK, now you have the definitely green but not exta-dark leaves which are best for steaming. Cut them into strips 1-1½ cm (about half an inch) wide. Probably, these leaves have held together when the heart pieces (and dark green leaves if there were any) were removed from the quarters. If so, a few parallel cuts, with one flat side of the bundle on the cutting board, will do the job.

There should be a half inch or so of water in the pot where you put the steaming basket—unless you are going to boil sliced beets or carrots in that water (thus cooking two vegetables in one “go”); in which case the water should cover one layer of what’s in the bottom of the pan. (Two layers might make it difficult to fit in the steaming basket… so the two-vegetables-at-one-go trick works for one or maybe two men, but not for a larger group.)

Separate the shredded leaves and distribute them loosely in the steaming basket—the air space will become steam space, and that’s how they will cook. Now, sprinkle caraway seed on top of that cabbage (many of the seeds will fall part-way through the loose “salad like” leafage)

Put the pot on the stove, and if it’s not a woodstove, turn on the power. High flame or electric switch setting will get the water boiling quickly, and usually that’s what you want. When the water is boiling (which you will see if the lid is made of glass or has a steam vent), lower the power (or on a woodstove, shift the pot to a slightly cooler part of the surface.)

The cabbage is ready when the color brightens. It’s OK, until you get used to steaming any vegetable, to let it cook a little longer rather than not long enough… but the best taste is at maximum brightness for leaf vegetables, so if the brightness starts to fade, take the pot off the stove and enjoy. (If you have other meal items still cooking and will be eating with others, leave the pan on an element or trivet where it’s not being heated. The hot
water in the pot should keep the cabbage warm until the rest of the meal is ready.)

Bean-sprouts, broccoli, carrots, spinach, frozen corn and green-beans, all steam well. I much prefer to boil beets. So don’t worry that your steaming basket won’t have lots of good work to do for you; as the months go by, you’ll learn to cook most kinds of fish in that basket, and white meat of chicken, as well.

For now, you’ve learned how to sort a cabbage into two or three different winter vegetables, a way to cook the medium green cabbage, with better taste than it has “naked”, and a pleasant smell in the kitchen while it cooks. Not bad for a technique that’s very easy once you get used to it.

{p.s. If you boil beets underneath the steaming basket, slice them thin! (less than a quarter-inch thick) Otherwise they won’t be done when the cabbage is ready. Carrots can be cut a little thicker, because they cook faster. And of course, if you eat alone, you can take the cabbage out when it’s ready, and eat it while the beets are finishing. Both beets and carrots are ready when a fork will push into them; as long as the root resists the fork the way it does when raw, they should be cooked some more.}


* If you know you won’t want to steam more cabbage than you will get from half the head, then you can halve the cabbage, put one half in that plastic bag, and cut the other half into quarters.

** Why clear? So you can see what’s inside. When i buy bulk foods and grocery-store vegetables, i save the plastic bags if they’re still clean, even rinse them sometimes, so i can ‘fridge home grown vegetables in them later.

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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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