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Behind the Recipes

Cabbage Goes Glam with This Ingenious Roasting Method

An easy hybrid approach transforms this often overlooked and underestimated vegetable into a crisp-tender delight.
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Published Dec. 4, 2023.

Cabbage, a member of the botanical species Brassica oleracea, is usually dismissed as the frumpy cousin of its more fetching and culinarily successful relatives brussels sprouts and cauliflower. But this large green sphere has much to offer: It’s nutritious; costs next to nothing; is readily available year-round; can be held for long periods in the refrigerator; and, just like its species mates, has the potential for extreme deliciousness. Certainly cabbage is a worthy and dependable denizen of the crisper drawer, and I suspected that—given a chance—it could be downright glamorous. 

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Science: One Species, Many Vegetables

Mark Twain wrote that “cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” A student of botany, he was onto something. Cauliflower and cabbage—and kale, kohlrabi, and more—are all the same species: Brassica oleracea. From one original variety, Brassica oleracea var. oleracea, or wild cabbage, which is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, many cultivars have been developed. Early farmers chose wild cabbage plants with attributes that they liked and propagated (or, per Twain’s analogy, “educated”) them over generations to create new vegetables. By selecting for flower clusters, they ended up with cauliflower. By selecting for lateral buds, they created brussels sprouts, and so on. Scientists have also mixed cultivars to make hybrids such as broccolini (a cross between broccoli and gai lan). –Rebecca Hays

It was one of cabbage’s kin that inspired the notion. Years ago, I’d developed a simple and effective method for roasting brussels sprouts: I halved each one and tumbled them with oil and seasoning; spread them on a baking sheet which I then covered tightly with foil; and slid them into in a very hot oven until the steam that built up under the foil softened the tightly compacted buds. Then, I pulled off the foil and roasted them further to evaporate the excess moisture, leaving the hemispheres beautifully browned, tender, nutty, and sweet. Cabbage, I reasoned, looked like a very generously proportioned sprout. Could a similar treatment work for it too?

Simply halving a whole head of cabbage was out; such large, dense pieces would take forever to cook through, so I tried two other strategies: I cut a 2-pounder straight through the core into eight wedges and sliced a second one perpendicular to the core into thick slabs, admiring the beauty in the uninterrupted whorls of pale green nestled leaves. 

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Technique: Flipping the Cabbage

To keep the wedges intact as you flip them, grip each one with tongs and then slide a thin metal spatula underneath to help gently turn it over.

Both shapes lacked the structural integrity required for the vigorous tossing I’d subjected the sprouts to, so instead I placed them on their respective baking sheets, drizzled them with oil, sprinkled them with salt and pepper, and covered them tightly. Then, I steam-roasted them in a 500-degree oven until they were tender, which took about 20 minutes. After uncovering them, I returned them to the oven to let the bottom sides brown. Then, I turned them over (a dicey maneuver with the slabs, as they are constructed of disconnected leaves) and roasted them some more.

The slabs, which were so aesthetically pleasing before cooking, emerged from the oven a disorganized jumble. But the wedges were promising. A small strip of the core had held each wedge together, even as it relaxed into soft creaminess. The rich, nutty sweetness was accentuated by areas of dramatic caramelization where the oiled edges of the leaves profited from direct contact with the pan.

Dressed to Impress

Unadorned, minimalist roasted cabbage is an attractive accompaniment to an elaborate main course, but flavorful toppings turn the wedges into stand-alone showstoppers that are wonderful as a light entrée along with rice or a grain. Or, try them as a stunning side dish to simpler fare: A creamy mustard sauce–and-bacon version pairs well with chicken; wedges drizzled with a gochujang sauce and showered with scallions and toasted sesame seeds perfectly complement steak; and cabbage dusted with buttery bread crumbs, sage, and Parmesan goes nicely with pork. 

Greedy for more of that bronzed drama, I tweaked my technique for the next go-round. Instead of haphazardly drizzling the oil and sprinkling the seasonings, I applied them directly to the cut sides of the wedges before laying those cut sides flush against the baking sheet. These wedges were stunning. The interiors were meltingly tender and the leaves formed an orderly yet organic arrangement of lightly crisp, caramelized ruffles. Frumpy cousin? Never. 

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