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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The coolest menu item at the moment is ... cabbage?

Cabbage, a stolid supporting player, has slowly risen to a starring role in creative restaurants across the country. American chefs have fallen in love with a vegetable that has sustained cultures for centuries. (Shawn Michael Jones/The New York Times)

By Kim Severson

If I were a vegetable, I would hire cabbage’s brand manager.

Cabbage has spent an eternity as the workhorse of the stir-fry and the braise, the quiet companion to endless duck legs and pulled pork sandwiches. It never complained, even when boiled with corned beef or shoved into a crock for months.

But today, a vegetable that can make your house smell like a 19th-century tenement is the darling of the culinary crowd.

Leaves of purple cabbage have been enlisted to swaddle mapo tofu at Poltergeist, the current culinary fascination in Los Angeles. At Superiority Burger in New York City, cabbage gently enrobes sticky rice studded with tofu and braised mushrooms.

Fancy dishes that cast cabbage in a leading role have been popular on the coasts for some time, but they’re now making their way onto menus across the country. At Good Hot Fish in Asheville, North Carolina, shredded green cabbage stars in a pancake punched up with sorghum hot sauce. In Denver, Sap Sua sprinkles a charred wedge with anchovy breadcrumbs. Cabbage is bathed in brown-butter hollandaise at Gigi’s Italian Kitchen in Atlanta.

“It’s like bacon was in the 1990s,” said Michael Stoltzfus, who has two cabbage dishes on his menu at Coquette in New Orleans.

Cabbage is just the latest celebrity in a family of hardy crucifers that help chefs and diners through the colder months when local produce is scarce. Arugula, kale and cauliflower have each had their star turn, but Brussels sprouts, the modern menu darling that David Chang started pan roasting with bacon at Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, is perhaps the biggest gateway brassica of them all.

Cabbage has the advantage of being especially cheap and bountiful, with a long shelf life — a single head seems to last forever in the refrigerator. It gained ground as American menus added creative dishes influenced by China, India and other Asian countries, where cabbage is an essential ingredient. Kimchi has helped mightily. Its meteoric rise has been buoyed — much to the chagrin of some — by the interest in all things fermented and gut-friendly.

With his Swiss-German heritage, Stoltzfus was a cabbage superfan before it was cool. “Everyone laughed at me for a long time,” he said.

His big hit is a charred wedge of green cabbage perched on turnip ravigote and showered with Parmesan. At $15, the dish is a steady moneymaker at a time when restaurant budgets are particularly tight.

“It’s something we joke about,” he said. “Our bestselling appetizer is the thing we’re most excited about, and also by far our best cost margin.”

Still, some diners who don’t have cabbage fever need to be convinced.

“For a regular person, cabbage is the last thing they go for when they see it on a menu because it’s humble, like a potato,” said Armen Ayvazyan, the chef at Chi Spacca, Nancy Silverton’s Italian steakhouse in Los Angeles.

Plenty of people order his $18 contribution to cabbage’s rehabilitation: a wedge of tender, cone-shaped cabbage stuffed with ’nduja. It comes to the table on a pool of taleggio fondue ringed with green scallion oil.

Cabbage has been a global culinary workhorse for centuries. (China grows the most, Russia eats the most.) It has fed generations of American immigrants.

But tracking down the Cabbage Zero that started the current cruciferous renaissance is not as easy as, say, pinning the popularity of goat cheese and beets on Wolfgang Puck in the 1980s or tipping the hat to Roy Choi for wrapping kimchi and bulgogi in a corn tortilla and driving the Korean taco craze 25 years later.

A decade or so ago, farmers who sell largely to restaurants began to grow more specialty cabbage, like the small, tender Caraflex, which is often called conehead or arrowhead because of its pointy tip, as well as napa cabbage and Tendersweets, which are shaped like flattened ovals with loosely packed thin, crisp leaves.

Chefs looking to create dishes for a new plant-forward world discovered that coneheads were easy to braise or roast, and looked gorgeous when quartered and sauced on a plate.

It’s hard to know who jumped into the cabbage pool first, but some chefs make bigger splashes than others. In 2018, Thomas Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se offered a charcoal-grilled Caraflex cabbage with apple, sunchokes and pumpkin seeds surrounded by red cabbage jus.

Around the same time, Chicago chef Paul Kahan put a charred wedge of cabbage on his menu at the Publican after tasting a version with hazelnut muhammara and a drizzle of tahini that Alon Shaya served when he was the chef at Shaya in New Orleans. Shaya has been making the dish for a decade. He serves it at Saba in New Orleans and Safta in Denver, and it will be on the menu when he opens Safta 1964 in Las Vegas next month.

By 2019, it looked as though cabbage was well on its way, at least according to The Associated Press. A few months later, Eater hailed cabbage as “your next great vegetable crush.” The pandemic slowed the vegetable’s momentum in restaurants, but there was a spike in sauerkraut and kimchi sales when people thought fermented cabbage might ward off COVID-19.

Now, cabbage fever is stronger than ever. “I think 2024 is going to be a really exciting year in cabbage,” predicted celebrity farmer Lee Jones of the Chef’s Garden, a specialty farm in northern Ohio.

Since 2017, Max Morningstar of MX Morningstar Farm near Hudson, New York, has been steadily adding arrowhead cabbage to his brassica mix. He plants close to two acres of it, but is pondering whether he should expand to six next fall.

“Who peddled the humble arrowhead cabbage to be what it is today? I’m not really sure,” he said. “Someone says this is going to be the thing, and this time around it’s cabbage.”

New York chef Victoria Blamey, who grew up in Chile, hated cabbage and its sulfurous smell. But as a young cook working in England, she tasted a dish of cabbage with bacon that had been slowly coaxed into softness. Now she uses the vegetable in terrines and chou farci, and recently married Murdoc cabbage, king crab and vanilla at Blanca, which recently reopened in Brooklyn.

“Cabbage can be as classy and luxurious as anything else,” she said.

But what of the home cook? For people who grew up eating Southern-fried cabbage or Chinese hand-torn cabbage or cabbage curry, cabbage isn’t news. The amount of cabbage Americans eat has dropped in this century, to roughly 6 pounds per capita in 2022 from 9 pounds in 2000.

About a third of grocery shoppers bought cabbage in 2023, down a little from 2022, according to a consumer survey by The Packer, a produce industry publication. And they weren’t just cooks on a budget: People making more than $100,000 a year bought more cabbage than those earning under $25,000, the report said.

Paul Crognale, who with his wife, Hana, runs Down Home Acres, a small farm in Unadilla, New York, sells produce at two greenmarkets on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Restaurants used to buy his Caraflex cabbage before the pandemic. Now, most of them turn to a distributor, so he’s been trying to gin up interest among home cooks.

“I thought it was super-cool and I thought it would be more popular,” he said. “On the Upper West Side, it sure wasn’t.”

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