WHERE IS CABBAGE HEADING? Much-maligned veggie finding new respect

Cabbage has had its problems over the years. It is not only unsung and unpraised; it is maligned, ridiculed, and used to describe stupidity. It was once associated with cheap boarding houses and tenement cooking. Along with Brussels sprouts, it is accused of having an unpleasant, strong flavor and an odor that is impossible to dispel.

But cabbage may be sprouting a new image. Today, top chefs at elegant restaurants around the world are using cabbage leaves to wrap delicately seasoned seafoods and serving cabbage combined with unusual ingredients to accompany game and poultry dishes.

``There are people who will not come to my restaurant unless I promise to serve my Warm Cabbage Salad With Duck Fat,'' says California chef Jeremiah Tower.

Cabbage could get a new lease on life in the average kitchen, too -- if people treated it with the respect it deserves.

When cooking cabbage at home, for instance, the odor should not be a problem. Overcooking is the cause of the odor and it ruins the flavor. Years ago, long boiling may have been necessary for the tougher varieties of cabbage, but it's not needed for today's tender hybrids.

Saut'eing is one good, quick way of cooking it. Steaming is especially good for sprouts, since it's almost impossible to drain all the water out after boiling.

As for the specific cause of the strong odor and flavor when overcooked, it's the sulphur-based compounds also found in onions. Long cooking releases the enzyme that breaks down to release hydrogen sulfide, the characteristic odor of rotten eggs.

The longer the vegetable is cooked, the more of these molecules are produced, and the flavor of the cooked cabbage gets stronger, not weaker.

In his book on science in the kitchen, ``On Food and Cooking'' (Scribner's, $19.95), Harold McGee says the amount of hydrogen sulfide produced in boiled cabbage doubles in the fifth through the seventh minute of cooking.

I remember in the '30s when my mother changed from cooking cabbage an hour or more to a new recipe she called ``Seven-Minute Cabbage.'' It was revolutionary at the time, but delicious and without the strong aroma.

While the familiar round cabbages -- red, green, and savoy -- are the traditional, the newest kind of cabbage on American markets is the oval-shaped Chinese celery cabbage. This includes ``pak choy'' (also called ``bok choy'') and half a dozen more of the choy family.

Since many of these cabbages are relatively inexpensive and versatile, they are being accepted easily by American cooks.

Cabbage is an important food plant in China, but credit goes to Hungary for inventing more ways to prepare it than any other nation. Writer George Lang says that he collected more than 800 cabbage recipes for his cookbook, ``The Cuisine of Hungary'' (Atheneum).

The most popular cabbage dish in Hungary is sauerkraut, and Lang's chapter on cabbage describes the big, mustachioed cabbage-cutter specialists waiting at the Budapest wharves on the Danube for the arrival of ships filled with tons of cabbages.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor. HERE is one of Lang's Hungarian cabbage recipes, named for Gul Baba, a beloved member of the occupying forces in the 16th century, who established rose gardens and fruit orchards in Hungary.

It is an easy to make, mild, sweet and sour red cabbage dish. Apple Cabbage Gul Baba 2 1/2 pounds red cabbage 1 tablespoon salt 1 small onion, minced 2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon sugar 1 cup chicken broth 2 pounds sour apples 2 tablespoons flour 1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Slice or cut cabbage to a fine slaw. Mix with 1 tablespoon salt, cover, and let stand 2 to 3 hours.

Squeeze cabbage well, a little at a time and set aside.

Wilt onion in butter about 10 minutes. Add sugar and brown carefully so it won't burn. Mix in cabbage and add 1/2 cup chicken broth. Cover and cook on low heat 30 minutes.

Peel apples and cut in fine pieces. Add to cabbage and cook until both are done.

Mix flour with remaining 1/2 cup chicken broth and blend until smooth. Add lemon juice, then combine with cabbage.

Simmer 5 minutes more. Adjust salt, sugar, and lemon juice to your sweet-and-sour liking. IN ``Jeremiah Tower's New American Classics'' (Harper & Row, $25), there are several recipes for cabbage. Here is the recipe for Mr. Tower's warm cabbage salad. Warm Cabbage Salad With Duck Fat 1 small red cabbage (about 1 pound) 8 slices bacon or pancetta 8 slices white bread, preferably baguette or country bread 1/2 cup walnut halves 1 clove garlic, peeled, in half 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice Salt and freshly ground pepper 1/4 cup rendered duck fat 4 l-ounce rounds fresh white goat cheese 1 tablespoon fresh parsley

Halve cabbage through root end. Cut out core.

Turn halves cut side down and slice crosswise into 1/8-inch pieces.

Bake or grill bacon, flat on rack, until crisp. Cut into 1-inch lengths. Keep warm.

In 350-degree F. oven, bake bread slices and walnuts 10 minutes. Cool bread, rub with garlic.

Let walnuts cool and keep croutons warm.

In a bowl, combine cabbage, vinegar, salt, and pepper and toss thoroughly.

Heat duck fat in skillet and add cabbage. Toss quickly but thoroughly 30 seconds. Add bacon and walnuts and toss again 1 minute.

Serve immediately on warm plates. Put cheese in center of cabbage, sprinkle with parsley and put croutons on plate. LOIS Burpee, wife of the famous seedsman, is an experienced gardener and knows how to cook well the things she grows. Here are her ideas for variations of ways to cook both cabbage and Brussels sprouts, from her cookbook, ``Lois Burpee's Gardener's Companion and Cookbook'' (Harper & Row, $14.95). Buttered Cabbage 1 medium cabbage 3 tablespoons butter Salt Fresh-ground pepper

Core cabbage and cut in quarters. Slice each piece lengthwise, then crosswise into 3/4-inch pieces.

Rinse well with cold water, then place in a large skillet with water still clinging to leaves. Cover tightly and steam over low heat 15 to 25 minutes, or until just tender. Thicker leaves should be a bit crisp.

Remove cover, add butter, salt, and pepper and stir constantly over moderate heat 2 or 3 minutes more.

Serves 6 to 8. Cabbage Ideas

To make colcannon, an Irish dish, mash hot potatoes and leeks, then beat in cooked, shredded cabbage. Any leftovers make delicious patties fried in bacon fat.

Make cream of cabbage soup, adding sour cream after shredded cabbage has been cooked tender. Top with grated cheese.

Use large cabbage leaves to line a meat loaf mixture.

Whole cabbages will cook in a steamer basket in 6 to 9 minutes. Sliced cabbage will steam in 5 to 6 minutes. Whole leaves will cook in steamer in 3 to 4 minutes. Brussels Sprouts Ideas

Good seasonings for Brussels sprouts include garlic, dill, ginger, nutmeg, or cloves added to a white sauce.

Small boiled or marinated sprouts are good for appetizers or a snack served with a toothpick.

For a typical French holiday dish, mix cooked sprouts with cooked chestnuts and butter. Or use almonds and cream.

Braise sprouts, mushrooms, and onions in bacon fat. Top with grated Cheddar cheese and bacon.

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