Like many things from childhood, I never quite appreciated the wonder and versatility of cabbage until I left home. It was in my studies of macrobiotics and food as medicine that I came to realize the nutritional and healing properties of cabbage and ways I could integrate it into both my life and culinary repertoire as food for my body and soul. Cabbage was a daily staple of my childhood, served up alongside meat or fish and potatoes. Even though my mother was a creative soul and a great cook, our cabbage was mostly boiled and served with a daub of butter—don't mess with a good thing, I suppose.
Cabbage is at its best when it's in season in the late fall and winter months, but it stores well and can be enjoyed year-round. Whole heads of cabbage will stay fresh for several weeks in a fridge, but once they're cut, they need to be used up within four to five days. If it's not cabbage season and you can't find it organically grown, I always recommend rinsing it in a basin of cold water with about 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar to remove any pesticide residue, especially if eating it raw in salads and coleslaw.
The main varieties of cabbage are green, red and Savoy cabbage, with bok choy, Chinese or Napa cabbage, kale and brussels sprouts also being members of the same brassica family. The outer leaves in green cabbage are exposed to light, which develops the chlorophyll, hence the deeper green color, whereas the inner leaves are a paler color with a crispier texture and are often referred to as white cabbage—my favorite for making my crispy slaw!
As well as being a highly nutritious food, cabbage has many healing and therapeutic benefits. It is a rich source of vitamins C and beta-carotene, which is a precursor to vitamin A. These vitamins are antioxidants and help combat free-radical damage in the body, which makes them great for anti-aging. Cabbage is also high in fiber, B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, folic acid, protein and essential fatty acids. It is alkaline, which makes it a good balance for acid forming meat and potatoes.
Here are some further medicinal applications for cabbage:
Cabbage is excellent for gastrointestinal health because of its high fiber content. It is especially good for overcoming constipation.
The water from cooking cabbage was always recommended by my grandmother for anyone with stomach upset.
Cabbage juice, because of its alkaline nature, is beneficial for the treatment of ulcers. It is best to drink the juice immediately after extracting it, as it tends to oxidize and lose some of its vitamin C if left to sit around.
A drink made from 1 cup shredded cabbage, 1 cup diced carrot, 1 cup diced sweet squash and 1 diced onion, simmered with 5 cups water for about 20 minutes is excellent for balancing blood sugar and treating hypoglycemia. Strain off the water and drink it. It is soothing for the spleen and stomach and is best taken at the time of day when these organs are most active, between 2 and 4 p.m.
Cabbage, because of its folic acid content, is excellent to take during pregnancy, as this is one of the nutrients recommended to lower the risk of having babies with spina bifida.
Cabbage leaves have also been recommended for the treatment of mastitis and painful breasts during breastfeeding. If there's heat or inflammation involved, it's best to apply the cabbage raw, like a cold compress. Alternatively, the leaves can be lightly blanched and applied like a warm compress. When heated, the leaves release various anti-inflammatory chemicals and phytohormones that can soothe and heal.
Warmed cabbage leaves can be used as a poultice to treat infection, inflammation, sprains or aching joints.
The cabbage family vegetables are known for their cancer-preventing nutrients, particularly fermented cabbage, also known as sauerkraut, which supports healthy digestion.
Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage are said to have an adverse affect on thyroid functioning, as they interfere with iodine uptake. If you have an underactive thyroid, it may be best to limit the consumption of cabbage family foods to see if you get any relief from your symptoms, or at least to include more high-iodine foods like sea vegetables in your diet. Conversely, people with hyperthyroidism may actually benefit from the thyroid-suppressing affect of cabbage.
Cooking partially inactivates the interfering chemical, which is medically referred to as a goitrogen, so if you have a thyroid issue, make sure you eat these vegetables in cooked form.
One of my favorite ways to eat cabbage is in a crispy slaw. Shred it and combine with shredded carrot, apple, cucumber, minced parsley or dill and drizzle with some olive oil, vinegar, lime or lemon juice and a touch of something sweet like agave syrup or honey. If you can find fresh jicama, it makes a lovely addition, as it retains its lovely crunchy texture.
Sauté shredded red cabbage with a red onion cut into thin half moons, add some apple and a drizzle of umeboshi plum vinegar or sea salt. You could also drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar at the end of cooking.
Cabbage can be shredded and added to stir-fries, soups or casseroles, or the leaves can be lightly steamed and stuffed with leftover grains, veggies and seasonings to make delicious cabbage rolls. The rolls can be served raw or baked in a tomato or mushroom sauce.
Savoy cabbage has a sweeter taste and is delicious simply steamed and served as a side dish. I like to combine it with leeks, carrot and cauliflower to make a lovely colorful veggie plate. You can drizzle with a little olive oil or melted butter or ghee and black pepper before serving.
Chinese or Napa cabbage is often used in Japanese dishes like Nabeyaki or used to make raw cabbage rolls. I detach the white rib and slice separately. The leaves are delicate and require very little cooking or they can be used raw in salads.
One of the healthiest ways to eat cabbage is in fermented form as sauerkraut. Fermentation not only preserves nutrients, but it breaks them down into more easily digested form. Fermented foods supply the digestive tract with living cultures, promoting healthy digestion and assimilation of nutrients in food. Fermented foods like sauerkraut are also high in enzymes that promote healthy digestion. I have found that a couple of spoonfuls of sauerkraut works wonders to relieve constipation.
Today I'm bringing you my Stuffed Cabbage Rolls, which is a great recipe for using up leftover grains like rice or quinoa. My sister sometimes stuffs them with minced meat and vegetables, so that's an option if you're a meat eater.