The Cabbage Core Challenge

4 Tricks for Taking the Sting Out of Bitter Vegetables

There’s a reason grocery store displays of broccoli rabe, rutabagas and turnips go

Cabbage Core

Does my "waste not-want not" motto really extend to cabbage cores?

untouched for hours at a time.  Some members of the vegetable kingdom are just a little harder to like than others.  But we still want the flavor and nutrient diversity they offer.  Happily, there are ways of preparing these difficult specimens that make them more palatable.  Although the following article focuses on cabbage cores, a particularly challenging vegetable, its tricks can be used to form a good working relationship with any of the harsher vegetables.


Here’s an honest admission:  I have a “waste-not-want-not” thing going on. My Twitter column is filled with vegetable dishes fast enough for breakfast and lunch—a good many made with stems, stalks, cores and leaves that normal cooks would pitch.  But not me.  I have this thing about waste, so I set myself a personal goal of starving my compost pile as much as possible.

To date, things have been going pretty well.  I’ve been turning kale stems, cauliflower leaves, broccoli stalks and other such “refuse” into tasty dishes—boosting my vegetable intake and stretching my vegetable dollars.  But then came yesterday’s cabbage core.  Couldn’t I safely pitch that without violating my self-inflicted waste code?

Tasting a piece of it triggered deep, gastronomic memories of everything bad about cabbage.  I now knew why the cabbage itself was unbelievably sweet and light:  Every bit of the head’s strong, musky, sour and harsh taste had been sucked into the core!  And that foul taste is what I got upon testing a bite.

I immediately started to scrape the whole thing towards the compost bin.  Not until the last

Cabbage Core Headed to the Compost Bin

The compost bin got the moldy end of the core, but the rest got chopped for a higher purpose.

second did my better self rise to the occasion.  The compost bin got the moldy end of the core (I do have some limits!), but the rest got chopped as I decided how to transform it into something I could stomach.  Working with vegetable parts that are frequently discarded, I’ve learned a few tricks to render them not only palatable but pretty decent-tasting.  This core was about to be my biggest challenge to date.

Trick 1:  Cook It Cooking is the best way to extract the bitterness from a vegetable.  In this case, I didn’t even consider steaming or sauteing but went straight to boiling, which is the preferred cooking method for really tough vegetable characters.

I know that boiling has lost favor over the years, probably because we get vegetables shipped in year round that are tender enough for just a light steaming or sautéing, which is generally better taste wise and nutritionally.  But imagine a pioneer farm wife faced with some garden remnant in November—it may be tough and gnarly, but it’s the closest thing to fresh that she will have for four months.  She is going to make those stalks or stems taste good no matter what, and boiling is the tool for the job.

Note, however, that boiling isn’t limited to throwing vegetables in a huge pot of water, cooking the vegetables to death and then pitching the water.  On the contrary, I simmer rather than boil my vegetables in a tiny, not a potful, of liquid.  This means any leached out vitamins and minerals get concentrated in an amount of liquid small enough that it can be fully incorporated into the finished dish, minimizing nutrient and flavor loss.  Also, I only simmer until the vegetables have lost their bitter or harsh taste, which is often when they are still crisp-tender.  My cabbage core had to be cooked beyond crisp-tender, but still far short of mush, before losing its harsh taste.

Trick 2:  Inject Flavor While water certainly works as a cooking liquid, experiment with

Simmer in Imagine's Vegetable Broth

This broth has plenty of flavor, so little additional salt was needed.

different broths.  They can inject flavor into the spaces left by the extraction of the vegetable’s bitterness.  I used Imagine’s Vegetable Broth, which has plenty of flavor to spare.

Third:  Salt Salt is also good at both drawing out bitterness and imparting flavor.  Your broth might be salty enough as is, but if using a low-sodium variety or water, try adding a little (maybe 1/4 tsp. to 1/2 tsp.) of good sea salt.  I used about 1/4 tsp. of Celtic salt in my simmer water.

Fourth:  Combine with Other Flavorful Ingredients.

I always say that sausage is a miracle ingredient.  Add just a little and the entire dish tastes great—no work, little cost and no cooking knowledge required.  Sausage was the primary tastemaker I added to my simmered cabbage core.

Sausage and Onion are Great Taste Makers

We just received a shipment of sausage from pasture-fed pigs. It I had no fat, so I had to add olive oil to saute the onion. Less than 1/4 lb. is all I needed for a great-flavored dish.

I also added sweetly browned onions and sweet snap pea shoots (I rescued a few from thegarden before last week’s snow.)  Their sweetness balanced the trace amounts of bitterness left in the cooked core pieces, as would other sweet vegetables (red peppers, corn, etc.) or sautéed fruits (like pears and apples), or just rice, chicken, tofu or some kind of sauce with a little sweetness.

The end result?  I think I met the challenge with a delicious for lunch that wasn’t just another sandwich–not by a long shot!

Cabbage Core with Sausage and Onions

For a little color, I added vivid green pea shoots at the end.

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Summer Refreshment: Cure for the Mid-Afternoon Doldrums

Make Iced Green Tea

It’s 3:00.  The vending machine is calling, or maybe the doughnuts left over in the break room.  You know it’s suicidal to indulge those cravings, but work is so boring and you’re so tired and . . .

Here’s an alternative.  Maybe more than sugar and calories, you need refreshment—as in something cool, revitalizing and calming, like Iced Green Tea.

Pomegranate ice cubes in the foreground; Lemon balm sprigs to the side; my lovely rosebush in the background

Pomegranate ice cubes in the foreground; Lemon balm sprigs to the side; my lovely rosebush in the background

Years ago, a good friend told me about the surprisingly satisfying taste of green iced tea, but I just couldn’t get excited about it.  Green tea seemed bland enough when hot; I could only imagine what a cold cup might taste like.

Things changed a couple weeks ago when I ran across a new decaf green:  Whole Foods’ Green Tea with Lemon Myrtle.  Admittedly, it was the price tag that drew me in.  While most teas now run $3.00 to $4.00 for a 20-count box, this one had 40 bags for $4.00—and it was organic to boot.  Remembering the crush of heat that waited outside the air conditioned grocery store, I decided it was finally time to try iced green tea.  Now I’m hooked.

Ayurvedic Balance There may be a good reason iced green tea is just the ticket for me on a hot day.  According to the Ayurvedic thought system, I’m primarily a “Pitta” gal.  As Jennifer Workman, Ayurvedic practitioner and author of Stop Your Cravings explains, we pitas get hot and bothered easily.  Happily, with something bitter, astringent and sweet our irritability evaporates and we get realigned into balance.  Conveniently, my new tea is both astringent (green tea) and bitter (lemon myrtle), in one easy-to-make, no-calorie beverage.  See the ice cube suggestion below to incorporate a little low-calorie sweetness.

Vatas and Kaphas Will this tea be as beneficial if you’re not a Pitta?  Yes!  Although Pittas are predisposed to irritability, anyone can get hot and bothered when the circumstances warrant, and summer’s heat certainly qualifies as just cause.

Good as a Tummy Tuck? Not really, but among the dozens of health facts to hit the airwaves recently there was a study about green tea’s ability to reduce tummy flab.  Sure can’t hurt to try!

A Special Touch Toss in a couple pomegranate juice ice cubes for a little sweetness.  Make a batch from pomegranate juice, then store in a plastic zippered bag or storage container in the freezer.  Not only will they be quite handy, they won’t acquire a nasty freezer burn taste.

Brewing in the Post-Hippie Era Remember the sun tea craze?  It was a great idea:  Why waste energy brewing on the stovetop when the sun could do the work?  Now it’s possible to go one step further and just brew in the frig.  Put a pitcher in the frig at night and it can go to work in the morning.  Three good reasons to go this route:

  1. Your refrigerator doesn’t have to cool hot or warmed tea, saving energy.
  2. You get better taste.  As explained by tea connoisseur Beth Johnston of Teas, etc., cold water draws out or pulls the flavor from the tea , “a much slower and gentler method [than hot water brewing] that results in a smoother, more subtle, naturally sweet tasting tea.”  
  3. As or more importantly, you’re spared from potentially dangerous bacterial growth.

How’s that?  Both water and tea leaves can harbor bacteria.  Sun tea water reaches only 130 (F), never the 195 (F) required to kill all this bacteria.  So left in the nice, warm sunshine, it can quickly grow and multiply to dangerous levels, enough to make you sick. 

Getting It to Work Of course you can drink iced green tea any time, but it does me the most good at my 3:00 p.m. low point.  So fill a water bottle at home and stash it in the office frig.  Alternatively, consider brewing a bottle at work.

No Whole Foods? No problem.  Any green tea will do.  Add a slice or two of lemon to your glass.  Or, when throwing the tea bags in your brewing water, include a few sprigs of lemon balm, one of those great herbs that comes up year after year without your doing a thing.  Or check out some of the greens that Johhston offers, especially Premium Lemon Citrus Organic.

To a refreshing and uplifting afternoon!

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