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red cabbage cutI’ve only just come to appre­ci­ate why my school art teach­er was often sli­cing cab­bages open and encour­aging us to repro­duce the intric­ate doodles inside. On the out­side they can be pointy or round, crinkly or smooth, red or green. I’d grow them for their archi­tec­tur­al beauty alone, par­tic­u­larly in winter when there’s space in the garden to tol­er­ate their rather tardy grow­ing habits. If I choose to eat them, it’s a bonus. Cab­bages really are that cool.

Cab­bages are a mem­ber of the Brassica or cru­ci­fer­ous veget­able genus, close rela­tions of cauli­flower, broc­coli and Brus­sels sprouts. The word ‘brassica’ is derived from bres­ic, Celt­ic for cab­bage, while ‘cru­ci­fer­ous’ derives from the flower pet­al pat­tern, which is thought to resemble a cru­ci­fix. This group is likely to ori­gin­ate from a wild cab­bage ancest­or found in Europe. They are a valu­able addi­tion to our diet, being high in vit­am­in C, beta-carotene and sol­uble fibre. Brassicas – par­tic­u­larly the red vari­et­ies – provide many nutri­ents and phyto­chem­ic­als vital to our health, keep­ing us can­cer-free, reg­u­lar and beau­ti­ful (but only if you eat them).

Cab­bages are the most widely grown brassicas. They like an open site with good sun and a rich, moist soil. They have a high nitro­gen require­ment, so do well fol­low­ing peas or beans, which fix nitro­gen into the soil with their roots. Cab­bages need a firm base, so it’s bet­ter not to dig or add com­post to the soil just pri­or to plant­ing. Garden centres often sell cab­bage seed­lings, but grow­ing your own is easy and will give you a wider choice of vari­et­ies. Seeds need a tem­per­at­ure of about 10˚C to ger­min­ate and the seed­lings should be up with­in a week. Grow them in small pots until their first true leaves appear and you can see roots just pok­ing through the base of the pot.

Plant out the seed­lings 30–50cm apart in both dir­ec­tions depend­ing on the vari­ety. If cab­bage white but­ter­flies are in the vicin­ity, the plants will need cov­er­ing with fine mesh to pro­tect them. Holes in the centre of the leaves tend to indic­ate attack by cater­pil­lars, while holes at the edges are a sign of slugs and snails.

I enjoy the ‘Space Saver’ vari­ety, which pro­duces a 1kg tightly wrapped round head in about 60 days from trans­plant­ing the seed­lings. ‘Con­e­head’ is worth grow­ing for its name and its rock­et shape. ‘Red Express’ is a small red cab­bage that takes about 10–12 weeks to mature. If you’re after a speedi­er res­ult or keen to make your own kim chi, then you might want to try Chinese cab­bage, which you’ll be able to pick about eight weeks after sowing.

Raw or cooked, fresh or fer­men­ted, cab­bage has a great deal to offer in the kit­chen as long as it’s not sul­phur­ous and over­cooked. Freshly steamed shred­ded cab­bage with a knob of but­ter takes some beat­ing. Often coleslaw mixes car­rots and cab­bage with a may­on­naise dress­ing, a little fresh or dried fruit for sweet­ness and a few nuts for crunch. Asi­an vari­ations tweak the dress­ing and season­ings to pro­duce a very dif­fer­ent but equally deli­cious salad. Cab­bage has a nat­ur­al affin­ity with bacon and caraway in the Slavic tra­di­tion, and Indi­an dishes often pair it with mus­tard seeds and chil­lies. Large cab­bage leaves make a flex­ible and glu­ten-free wrap for pie-type ingredi­ents. I’ve also had great suc­cess exper­i­ment­ing with pre­serving cab­bage with salt in its own nat­ur­al juice as sauerkraut.

Wheth­er you’re going to draw them, enjoy them as sculp­ture in your garden or even eat them, cab­bages are an indis­pens­able and beau­ti­ful winter crop. It’s cool to be a cabbage.




cabbage cut

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