Modern, "healthy" cuisines stress freshness, fiber and nutrients, and thus cabbage--especially red cabbage--finally is getting the respect it deserves.
Red cabbage has been a traditionally favored vegetable in Europe, especially in Germany and Denmark, where early peasant cuisines were the basis for a treasure house of imaginative recipes based on red cabbage. In the United States, until very recently, red cabbage generally has been relegated to a decorative role; it added color to green salads.
Until you grow your own, you'll have to be content with the somewhat bland store-bought varieties. But before discussing how to grow red cabbage, here are two simple methods of preparing it to bring out its savory goodness.
The first recipe calls for using raw red cabbage in a slaw, making the most of the fiber and nutritive value. Shred the cabbage, add some chopped green onion, mix in some mayonnaise and a touch of sugar, wine vinegar and salt to taste. Nothing else is needed; the red cabbage has its own distinctive flavor.
With the second recipe comes a warning to avoid the No. 1 crime perpetrated on red cabbage--overcooking. Shred the cabbage into a wok, add a little cooking oil, mix in thinly sliced onions and some fresh, slivered ginger root. Stir fry the mixture for three minutes and serve. Sound simple? It is, and delicious.
Concerning the cultivation of red cabbage, don't let the lack of a garden deter you from making the attempt. Red cabbage grows marvelously in a container and makes an attractive patio plant. You can grow it from seeds or transplants. 'Ruby Ball Hybrid' and 'Ruby Perfection Hybrid' are two superior varieties. Both produce beautiful magenta heads that are tops in flavor. You probably can find seeds for 'Ruby Ball' in local racks, and you can order seeds for 'Ruby Perfection' from Stokes Seeds, P.O. Box 548, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. However, you can save eight weeks of growing time by buying red-cabbage transplants at local nurseries. These are usually plants of 'Ruby Ball,' even though they often are labeled simply as "hybrid red cabbage."
For your cabbage patch, select a sunny area of the yard and prepare the soil by spading to a depth of 18 inches. Mix in a generous amount of compost, well-cured manure or other organic matter. Add a balanced vegetable fertilizer, and water throughly. Allow the soil to settle for two days before you plant.
When transplanting your own or nursery-purchased plants into the garden, place them deeper than they were set in the nursery pots or flats, because that will encourage sturdy stems. Space the plants 12 inches apart. Red cabbage needs a good deal of water and is a heavy feeder. Irrigate the plants at least once a week--more often during dry, windy periods. The soil should always be kept moist. When the young cabbage plants are about eight inches tall, give them a light feeding of a fertilizer with a fairly high nitrogen content. Immediately after fertilizing, water the plants deeply.
You can control pesky cabbage worms with an application of Dipel or Thuricide--biological insecticides that won't harm bees or other beneficial insects. Slugs and snails also love cabbage, so be on the alert for them.
Harvest red cabbage when the heads are very solid to the touch. Cut them off at the base, leaving a few outer leaves to protect the head.