This growing season has been unusual. Lilacs blossomed 2 weeks earlier in the spring and the crepe myrtles that are normally late bloomers in August, are already on the way out in mid July. As other growers and gardeners in our area have confirmed, the sustained heat wave accompanied by a very buggy season filled with cucumber beetles, squash vine borers, earwigs and slugs, has made for challenging growing conditions. Heat came on early, big and strong this summer forcing a premature end to peas, sugar snaps, lettuces and mustard greens. Surprisingly, the cabbage, traditionally a cool-loving crop, has managed to form beautifully in the heat with little fuss. Well, that is, certain varieties of cabbage are doing well. Napa or Chinese cabbage was devastated by earwigs that set up hotels deep between the leaves and left us with doily cabbage heads that soon after, bolted from the heat. We are having success with two varieties of cabbage that we picked because of their compact nature. Many people do not grow cabbage in their home gardens because of the space requirement. Makes little sense to build 1 story homes on a city block when you can put up skyscrapers, right? We grew them anyway to experiment and promote a polyculture farm and chose these two varieties: a mini red cabbage and a funny-looking cone shaped pointed mini cabbage called Caraflex. From a small farm financial standpoint it seems crazy to grow things that are so space intensive. Flying Tomato Farms in South Dakota estimated that with the space, labor, and materials it takes to harvest 15 cabbages from a 25 foot row in their small farm, they should charge $21 per cabbage head to make up for the gross amount that can be made in the same space growing a lettuce mix. They opted not to charge that amount and instead, viewed the small cabbage harvest as a treat.
As part of the cruciferous family of vegetables, cabbage produces sulfur and nitrogen containing glucosinolates. That breaks down to form isothiocyanates which may help to prevent cancer by helping to eliminate carcinogens and enhancing the transcriptions of tumor suppressing proteins in the body. Many of these compounds contribute to the distinctive bitter and sulphur tasting qualities and are decreased with high heat cooking or microwaving. Summer heat and drought will increase levels of isothiocyanates increasing the bitterness and the cooler temperatures of fall will make for milder tasting crucifers. There are particular isothiocyanates that can interfere with thyroid function particularly if there is an iodine deficiency which is becoming more and more common with the increased use of sea salt and the demineralization of our soils.
Interestingly, cabbages with open leaves accumulate more vitamin A and C and carotenoids than heading varieties whose inner leaves never see the light of day. Caraflex is a heading variety and the benefit of these cabbages is their higher sugar content and better storage life. Caraflex will keep in the refrigerator 8 weeks after harvest.
Recipe: Cabbage and Fennel with Parsley Lemon Butter in Egg Noodles
Serves 2 hungry people
1/2 small Caraflex or Savoy cabbage
1 large fennel bulb, cored
1 large leek, white part only
4 Tablespoons of unsalted butter
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
juice and zest of 1 lemon (Meyer lemon if you have)
3 Tablespoons of parsley or chervil
8 oz egg noodles (I used spaetzle)
1. Cut cabbage, fennel and leeks into thin slices, wash but don’t dry.
2. Cook egg noodles in boiling, salted water and drain.
3. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large wide skillet. Add vegetables and 1/2 tsp of salt. Cover pan and cook gently for 10 minutes checking halfway to make sure there is enough moisture in the pan so there is steaming and not browning of the vegetables. Meanwhile, simmer lemon juice in a small pan until slightly reduced. Remove from heat and whisk in remaining butter.
4. Finely chop lemon zest with the parsley. Add half in the butter mixture and the other half to the vegetables.
5. Combine the noodles, vegetables and zest-herb mixture in a large bowl and taste for additional salt and pepper.
Recipe adapted from Deborah Madison's book Local Flavors