Some food fads come and go, never to return, and others boomerang back into favor. Just take a look at my colleague Grace Dickinson’s take on the Philly food trends of 2019 — from butterfly pea flower blue drinks to the return (yet again) of French food — for examples of both extremes.
But I’m rooting for one unsung stalwart of the vegetable world to finally shake off its frumpy subsistence-food reputation for a turn in spotlight: The humble cabbage is ready for its starring role!
I’ve been predicting this for a while. The old Eastern European shtetl in my DNA predisposes me to cheer for the sturdy green. I always crave a good sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage, and it is golabki season again at Mom-Mom’s Polish Kitchen in Bridesburg, as well as a number of other Polish staples in nearby Port Richmond.
Spicy kimchi cabbage, meanwhile, remains an everyday staple in traditional Korean kitchens across the region, and that ancient fermented-food wonder has gathered some extra farmers market cachet with the momentum of the hipster pickling movement.
But there is yet another level of appreciation to be tapped for this cruciferous underdog — and is it really so far-fetched? Other members of the brassica clan have had their big moments. Brussels sprouts were the deep-fried side of the decade in the 2000s. Cauliflower has been riding high on the gluten-free wave since it met the ricer. The cabbage can do it, too. And there’s some evidence it’s happening.
One of the seasonal small plates at Via Locusta, Jeff Michaud and Michael Schulson’s popular new Italian collaboration on Rittenhouse Square, features cabbage stewed in Parmesan brodo with sliced apple. Fiore in Queen Village is serving cabbage as an antipasti smoked with sesame vinaigrette. Crunchy fronds of Savoy cabbage figured prominently in a curried coconut-mushroom soup of the day at Vernick Wine, the new bottle shop attached to Vernick Food & Drink.
A teardrop-shaped heirloom version called Caraflex was also showcased on menus at two of the most upscale restaurants to debut in Philly in 2019, both in the shiny new Comcast skyscraper. At Vernick Fish, the Caraflex was roasted to a deep sweetness over eight hours, then paired with a labor-intensive and complex duck fat mole. And I doubt cabbage has had many stages loftier or fancier than its spot on the menu 59 stories up at Jean-Georges Philadelphia, where the layered leaves were stuffed with celeriac puree, dusted with dehydrated mushroom powder, and showered with freshly shaved truffles. Of course, it also cost $22 a slice — enough to buy 22 pounds of organic green heads at Whole Foods.
If I were to cook it at home, I’d attempt to emulate the quick-fired Thai technique of chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon at Kalaya, who stir-fried her cabbage with palm sugar and a splash of fish sauce over the fire of a wok so hot, it seemed to transform it into cabbage candy — and one of the best vegetable dishes I ate last year.
Then again, I have also come to appreciate the cabbage in its timeless role as a wrapper — though even this genre has taken some notable upscale steps in recent months. At June BYOB, the classic French dining room on East Passyunk Avenue, the chou farci gets filled with ground duck, chestnuts, foie gras, and truffles. “My wife would call them golabki,” joked chef-owner Richard Cusack, fully aware his pedigreed cabbage rolls are a far cry from the humble sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbages many of us regard as ultimate Eastern Euro comfort food.
And, no, these dishes didn’t exactly qualify as healthy eating. But they were delicious. And in this year of many cabbage surprises, the fact it can taste so good will ultimately be its most newsworthy and tempting virtue.