The humble cabbage: A Mexican cook’s loyal friend

articles Food & Cuisine

Karen Hursh Graber

At this time of year, whether you find yourself warming up with a hearty soup or stew in the cool Mexican highlands, or enjoying a fish taco on a winter beach vacation on one of the country’s coasts, chances are that your meal will contain cabbage.

Cabage for sale in a Mexican market © Karen Hursh Graber, 2014
Cabage for sale in a Mexican market
© Karen Hursh Graber, 2014

From the Central Mexican stew called puchero — which uses a whole head of cabbage among numerous other ingredients — to the requisite cabbage salad served with Baja’s most famous street food, this workhorse of a vegetable adds both flavor and nutrition. Even the puchero of the Yucatan peninsula contains a plentiful amount of cabbage, and I don’t think there is any region of the country where this vegetable is not available year round.

The smallest, most remote village market will have cabbage, one of the things home cooks can always count on to be available. Other produce comes and goes, but cabbage is dependably on hand to provide an inexpensive, nourishing addition to family meals. In areas where fresh produce is limited, cabbage is a valuable source of vitamin C that might otherwise be lacking, and keeps well in places with no refrigeration.

Several years ago, on a trip along the old Baja road, we stopped one evening to stay in one of the bunkhouse rooms at Rancho Santa Inez. A full moon that night turned this boulder-strewn terrain into a magical moonscape, but before falling asleep, we couldn’t help wonder what there might be for breakfast, since there was no way to keep food cold with only a couple of hours a day of electricity, sporadic at best.

Not to worry, because the cook was doing a great job with ingredients that kept well without a fridge, including the delicious dried beef called carne machaca, along with dried herbs and spices, eggs, rice, flour, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, and — you guessed it — cabbage. Everything that came out of this humble kitchen was delicious, and I am convinced that Mexico was the birthplace of “stone soup.” (Some people can make anything taste good.)

Cabbage does, in fact, appear in several substantial Mexican soups, not to mention the countless variations improvised every day by those who need to feed a family on a tight budget. A few pesos will yield a big pile of shredded cabbage, along with its many nutritional benefits.

Besides having impressively high levels of vitamin C and fiber, cabbage is also a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium and other minerals, plus vitamins K and B6. Cabbage is extremely low in fat and, as a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables that contain disease fighting phytochemicals, is one of the super veggies recommended to lower cancer risk.

Such is the efficacy of cabbage as an antitoxin that during Captain Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific, the ship’s doctor saved men who had been injured in a violent storm from developing gangrene by applying poultices of cabbage to their wounds. As topical antiseptics, cabbage poultices draw infections from inflamed areas and reduce swelling.

Traveling thereafter with large supplies of cabbage, Cook was one captain whose ships never had scurvy problems, due to the aforementioned high levels of vitamin C in the pickled cabbage fed to crew members. In Mexico, water that has been boiled with cabbage leaves for 10 minutes is taken as an aide in alleviating colitis.

In addition to being an integral part of the wildly popular Baja fish tacos, cabbage is found in many other Mexican street foods, including the salbutes of the Yucatan. In Chihuahua, it is used in a soup brought by Mennonites of Russian descent and enlivened with the typically Mexican additions of tomatoes and chile. One of my favorite uses of cabbage is in a ground beef dish from Chiapas, presented by Diana Kennedy in Essential Cuisines of Mexico.

Col morada — purple or “red” cabbage — is used in vegetable salads in Aguascalientes, where it is soaked in lemon water before adding to the salad, to make the raw cabbage easier to digest. Cabbage is also used in Aguascalientes’ version of a Spanish-style vegetable stew using chambarete, or beef shank with marrow.

When buying cabbage, look for shiny, compact heads that are heavy for their size. Avoid those with blemished leaves or that are light for their size. This is one of the cold weather vegetables that keep without refrigeration, although refrigeration is preferable. If only a half head is being used, the unused half should be covered tightly and stored in the refrigerator for up to three days. Before using cabbage, remove the outer leaves and wash it under running water. Remove and discard the tough inner core before shredding.

Cabbage can be added to almost any vegetable salad or soup, and to many meat stews. Try one of the following Mexican cabbage recipes. Satisfying, healthy and cheap, what’s not to like?

Published or Updated on: January 5, 2014 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2014
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