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A-Z of Vegetables: Red cabbage

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 21 Nov 2023, 17:41

It’s very hard not to believe in magic when there’s such a thing as red cabbage in the world. As a child, it was always fun ruminating on why it was called ‘red cabbage’ – had they not invented purple at the time – but that’s before you get onto the astounding behaviour of the cabbage in regard to its own colour. The vegetable appears to have taken the semantic quibble of its name very personally: just watch when you cook it plainly, or even just bruise it: what is that colour? No foods are truly, naturally that colour, even blueberries are grey-violet. But no, red cabbage is, in fact… blue cabbage.

It’s something to do with its chemistry. Basically, red cabbage is what’s known as a ‘universal indicator’, meaning that it changes colour depending on the acidity (or alkalinity) of its environment – like litmus paper. Hence, if you’ve been busy braising red cabbage and you don’t want to put off your dinner guests with what looks like mutilated Smurfs, then simply add some vinegar or something else acidic and it will automatically become purple again. Add some more, and it turns pink. That’s because Acidity is Pink and Alkalinity is Blue (which was the title of my imaginary PhD).

The most common way of eating red cabbage is probably at Christmas, as part of the traffic-light vegetable medley of braised cabbage, roast carrots and growling sprouts. However, you can eat red cabbage like any other cabbage too: boiled like white cabbage, stir-fried like Savoy cabbage, raw like Sweetheart cabbage. In fact it is in its raw form that I most implore you to try it. You have to use red cabbage for coleslaw. You must, you must, you must. Who doesn’t want purple coleslaw? I do. Add beetroot too and your toilet visits will be as pink as the rose-tinted spectacles you’re wearing to cope with me mentioning toilets in a food article.

I have a big space in my heart for red cabbage. Actually, my heart probably is a red cabbage. In flavour terms, I think of cabbage as coming into your cottage from a long but refreshing country walk in the rain. I once read a recipe for game chips which said that it’s hard to say how many the recipe feeds because people generally eat as much as you put in front of them. I’m like that but with red cabbage.


Roast red cabbage burgers which you could pretend are actually burgers if you’re in the mood to insult somebody’s intelligence. To serve 3.

  1. Preheat the oven to 190ºC fan and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. This is because I do not believe in scraping burnt sticky bits off sheets of metal but if you are of a different persuasion, feel free to do what you want. I’m not washing up.
  2. Wash your 1 red cabbage and if any of the leaves are revolting, remove them. If they’re blue, that’s fine. Red cabbage is actually blue. Which only sounds insane if you think about it.
  3. Turn the cabbage upside down and cut the cabbage into slices using the core as a guide: you want to cut the core into 4 pieces, and the rest of the cabbage therefore into 4 slices.
  4. Put the slices of cabbage on the baking tray and sprinkle a pinch of salt onto each cabbage slice, paying particular attention to the core – this will help them soften. Using 4 tbsp quince jelly (optional but ambrosial), spread quince jelly across each cabbage. 
  5. Into a small jar with a lid, pour 1 tbsp oil, 1 tsp balsamic, cider or red wine vinegar and 2 tsp mustard, then put the lid on and shake it up, then pour the contents over the cabbage slices. Roast the cabbage slices for 30 minutes. Whilst you’re at it, maybe you should roast some tofu and other bits and pieces for dinner. Toss the chopped tofu in cornflour and ground pepper, drizzle with oil and roast it too.
  6. The best thing to do is get out a slice of bread so when the cabbage is cooked, it can get slipped onto the bread with all its divinely purple cooking juices.
  7. Look, the cores of the slices will still be tough. Edible, but tough. You don’t have to eat them! You can cut them out and chuck them in the soup or sauce you’re making tomorrow! You could blitz them into a smoothie! You could fry them into soffritto! But if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to eat mine anyway.

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