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Groundwork: Cabbages and kings

Green Spring's vegetable garden. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

When the great garden maker Andre Le Notre was knighted by the Sun King, he was asked what he wanted on his coat of arms. "A large headed cabbage," came the reply. This endears the fellow to gardeners everywhere. If the creator of the formal landscape garden at Versailles can see majesty in the humble cabbage, who are we to deride this oft-maligned veggie? In Washington, cabbages are grown as a spring crop and in the fall. Like most other brassicas, such as cauliflower and Brussels, it is stressed by our hot, humid summers.

Recipe Included

At Green Spring Gardens, the cabbages are started from seed in the greenhouse about six weeks before they are planted out. This is especially necessary for spring-grown cabbages, because you want them to have matured before the heat of June arrives. For spring growing, pick a fast-maturing, early-season variety such as Parel or Farao. Crinkle-leafed or Savoy cabbages will take more heat than smooth-leafed varieties, and also make for a good choice in the spring season.

If you don't have a greenhouse, you can start them under lights. Sow the seed in early February so that the transplants can go into the garden in mid-March, after they are conditioned to life outdoors.

Cabbages come into their own, however, in the fall, when they head up as the weather gets cooler. They will not only take a few degrees of frost but will be sweetened by a freeze. You can harvest cabbages from October well into December. Start them from seed in late July and plant them out in mid-August. (Transplants are readily available at garden centers and mass merchandizers in March but harder to find in the middle of the summer.)

Cabbages are not difficult to grow but demand attention from the gardener. First, the soil should be well amended and fertile because cabbages are heavy feeders. I fertilize them weekly with a weak solution of fish emulsion. The key to good cabbage production is to keep the soil evenly moist, but not wet. Periods of drought followed by rain will cause the heads to split. Rich soil that is free draining and lightly mulched will give the optimum growing conditions, along with full sunlight.

If you grow cabbages, you will receive a visit from a white butterfly, which will lay her eggs on the leaves to become green worms. They are hard to spot, especially when young, but if left unchecked will do some major damage. You can hand-pick them or spray or dust the cabbage with Bt, a bacterium that will kill them organically. This cabbage has been both attacked and dusted, but has survived the ordeal.

Eaten, dusted, but ready for the table. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The other pest to worry about is a brown, soil-born caterpillar called the cutworm. It will topple a transplant the first night you set it. By digging the bed in advance of planting, there's a good chance you will kill any lurking cutworms. But for extra protection, you should put a cardboard collar around the transplant until its stem reaches the size of a pencil, at which point the insect will leave it alone.

This may sound like a lot of fuss and bother, but it's all about the process and joy of gardening and the pride of producing a large colorful head of cabbage fit for your coat of arms. Now, what to do with it. . . .

-- Adrian Higgins

Mrs. Stepanoff’s Sauteed Cabbage
8 servings

When Cynthia Brown's husband was in high school, he was tended and loved by a gregarious Russian family. The matriarch, Mrs. Stepanoff, made sure he dressed appropriately for the season and ate nourishing food. When Brown married into the “family,” Mrs. Stepanoff shared some of her recipes, her passion for serving fresh ingredients and her belief that you should always make enough for “one more” at the dinner table. This cabbage dish satisfies all three criteria.

Serve with pierogies, lumpy mashed garlic potatoes, egg noodles or pumpernickel bread. Pass a bowl of sour cream at the table and, if desired, salute Mrs. Stepanoff with a shot of vodka.

Adapted by Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound fresh kelbasa, cut into bite-size pieces
1 large onion, cut in half then cut into thin half-moon slices
2 ribs celery, chopped (1 cup)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
2 Granny Smith apples, cored, cut in half and then cut into thin slices
2 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
One 2-pound head of cabbage, outer leaves removed, cored then cut into thin slices (8 cups)
1 or 2 medium tomatoes, cut into small dice (at this time of year, use vine-ripened tomatoes)
1/2 cup beer, preferably a dark stout
Leaves from 3 or 4 stems flat-leaf parsley, chopped (3 tablespoons)
Sour cream, for serving

Line a large bowl with a few layers of paper towels.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon of the oil and the kielbasa pieces. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, to brown the kielbasa evenly, then use a slotted spoon to transfer it to the lined bowl, leaving the drippings in the skillet.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add a little more of the oil (as needed) so the bottom of the skillet is coated. Add the onion, celery and garlic; cook for about 2 minutes, stirring, until the onions just begin to soften.

Add the apples, stirring to combine, then add the paprika, caraway seeds, celery seeds, salt and the black pepper to taste. Cook for 1 minute, stirring to mix well. Discard the paper towels from the bowl of cooked and drained kielbasa bits, then combine the kielbasa and onion mixture in that bowl.

Increase the heat to medium-high. Add the sliced cabbage to the skillet in batches, so it will brown lightly instead of steam in its own juices. As you work, add just enough of the oil before each batch to cover the bottom of the skillet. Cook each batch for 3 or 4 minutes, until wilted and lightly browned, then use tongs to transfer to the bowl with the kielbasa-onion mixture.

When all the cabbage has been cooked, return the cabbage-kielbasa mixture to the skillet over medium heat, then add the chopped tomatoes and beer. Once the mixture begins to bubble at the edges, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, so all the juices and flavors meld and all the ingredients are warmed. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

Add the chopped parsley and toss lightly. Serve hot, with sour cream passed at the table.

Per serving: 237 calories, 10 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 1,002 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  November 16, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, cabbage, recipes  
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I am mystified by whatever critters have turned my exterior cabbage leaves into lace. I handpicked the worms, and there were some early in the season, but generally caterpillars leave behind a lot of evidence - there is none in my savoy cabbages now, but they are completely fill of tiny holes. Is there another kind of pest that might be afoot?

Posted by: tcurry22980 | November 19, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

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