The words "cabbage" and "revelation" don't often have much to do with each other, but bear with me. There are moments of magic that can happen in kitchens to suddenly change the way you think about an ingredient, and the way you might cook it.
I had my brassica epiphany with Jacques Reymond and a Savoy cabbage many years ago. He was showing me how to cook cabbage "en beurre", which was unlike anything I had seen before. He used a large, thin-based pot, melted loads of butter and waited until it was foaming before adding torn pieces of cabbage, whole cloves of garlic, thyme and salt. Once the cabbage started to cook, he covered the pot and reduced the heat just a little. He then stood over the pot, tossing and stirring for a good five minutes, took it off the heat and served a spoonful as a base for a fillet of roast wild barramundi. The cabbage was a lustrous pale green, pleasantly yielding, and it tasted beautifully sweet and fresh.
It was a world away from the old-school cabbage I was familiar with, cabbage that had generally been cooked for a long time, usually with pieces of smoked pork or sausage. Don't get me wrong, I love that kind of cabbage.
I grew up on the stuff: my mother cooked marvellous sauerkraut, and dishes such as stuffed cabbage and pork rolls were stand-bys in the Hafner household. But up until that point it was all I knew, and now I understood that cabbage could be vibrant and fresh.
Cabbages are cruciferous vegetables, related to cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli. They grow in a wide range of climates but are best suited to cool, moist conditions. In Australia, various varieties grow throughout the year, but the height of their season is from autumn to spring.
My favourite cabbage to cook is the Savoy, which has deep green-blue outer leaves and wrinkly pale-green inner leaves. It has the nicest flavour and is also beautiful raw. Sugarloaf cabbage is smaller with a distinctive conical shape. It has a sweeter flavour and is ideal raw in salad.
Then there's the Chinese cabbage, with its elongated shape, pale-yellow crinkly leaves and a thick white inner stem. It's excellent wok-fried, in a soup or thinly sliced in a salad. My favourite accompaniment to steeped Chinese chicken is stir-fried Chinese cabbage with ginger, chilli sauce and Shaoxing wine.
Red cabbage is less commonly used in Australia, but it's great both raw and cooked. I love it braised, again with some pork bits to help with the flavour and to give it a bit of sheen, then a splash of Sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar to give it a little piquant edge. Avoid overcooking the cabbage; cook it until it is just soft rather than melting to maintain the fresh flavour.
While it will last for several days in the fridge, cabbage tastes best really fresh. A whole head can be enormous, though, and there's no major compromise in quality if you're buying a half or quarter - just check that the cut side has no discolouration.
Cabbage is wonderful pickled - kimchi and sauerkraut are just two of the more addictive examples. Cabbage leaves can also be softened in boiling water and used to wrap minced meat as in the Eastern European dish of stuffed cabbage rolls in tomato sauce.
Raw, it shines in salads - shaved sugarloaf cabbage with mint and fresh peas with lemon dressing, say, or the Savoy cabbage salad with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and balsamic vinegar made famous by Andy Bunn while he was at Sydney's Fratelli Fresh. The salad's textural appeal relies on how thinly the cabbage is cut. If your knife skills aren't quite up to the fine julienne required, use a mandolin. Adding salt 15 minutes before serving will help to break down the cabbage; I usually like to add the dressing 10 minutes before serving so that it wilts lightly, unless the cabbage is so finely shaved it doesn't need it.
For the best cooked cabbage, I also like to cut it very finely - this reduces the cooking time needed and keeps it tasting fresh and lively. I'll sweat some shallots in extra-virgin olive oil and butter till they're soft, add some slices of smoked pork belly and cook them till they're crisp, then add the cabbage and some salt and cook it partly covered with a lid until it's just soft and still green. Sometimes I add slices of Granny Smith apple - it's particularly good with the pork. Get ready for a revelation of your own.