The story goes that impoverished Irish immigrants to New York couldn't get or afford their first choice — Irish bacon, which is similar to back bacon — so they borrowed the idea of corned beef from their Jewish neighbours. Potatoes were available, but cabbage was cheaper, so the Irish-American tradition of corned beef and cabbage was born.
It has become so popular that the U.S. Agricultural Marketing Resource Centre says March sees the biggest demand for cabbage in that country because of St. Patrick's Day. But that could be a problem this year.
A U.S. trade publication called The Packer says the "polar vortex" that reached far into the southern States this winter hurt cabbage crops in northern Florida and Texas, limiting supplies and resulting in prices that almost doubled in February and were expected to continue into March.
Canadian cabbage fans don't have to worry, at least not for a while.
Homegrown cabbage harvested last fall will be available here until April, says Jamie Reaume, chair of the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto and executive director of the Holland Marsh Growers' Association, based in Newmarket, Ont.
When Canadian consumers could see the effects of the U.S. problems is in May and June, he says, what Canadian growers call their "lull time — just between the end of our stored cabbage and the beginning of the new crop season for July."
He also says there is no spike in Canadian demand for cabbage corresponding to St. Patrick's Day and called cabbage sales "pretty flat line" throughout the year.
Cabbage is grown commercially in most provinces in Canada, says Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, with Quebec leading the way, followed by Ontario. The main varieties are green, red and Savoy cabbage, but green is the most common because it stores best over the winter. But in a test last year, the more delicate varieties were successfully stored, Reaume says, so that could be a trend in the future of the industry.
Mary Shabatura and her family grow about 40 hectares of green, red and Savoy cabbage in Ontario's Norfolk County. Depending on the weather, they will plant their spring crop in April for harvest as early as June, with additional plantings in May and June. The early varieties take 50 to 60 days to mature, while the hardier storage type — mainly the green cabbage — take about 120 days, she says.
"For the spring ones, you won't get as heavy a head. It will be a lighter head (in weight) and very green."
Green cabbage has the strongest taste, she says. Savoy, which has dark green crinkled leaves, "is a little softer (in texture) and is a milder cabbage (in taste)."
But the two can often be used interchangeably in many recipes.
Napa cabbage, sometimes called Chinese cabbage, with pale green crinkled leaves and a white core, looks more like a head of romaine lettuce than a typical head of cabbage and has the mildest flavour.
Shabatura uses cabbage a lot in her kitchen, both cooked in soups, stews and cabbage rolls and raw in coleslaw.
The key to combating the smell of cooking cabbage is not to overcook it, says Foodland Ontario. It should be cooked quickly, until just tender, in an uncovered pot.
Other suggestions include using stainless-steel or enamelled cast-iron pans to cook cabbage instead of aluminum and adding a bay leaf, a little vinegar or lemon juice to the pot. Vinegar or lemon juice will also preserve the bright colour of red cabbage.
Cabbage is a versatile vegetable. It can be steamed, boiled, braised in butter, microwaved, baked, pickled or added to stir-fries.
Nutritionally it is a good source of vitamin C and is associated with lowered risk of certain cancers.
When buying cabbage, look for firm, heavy heads of green, red and Savoy cabbage with closely furled leaves. Napa should be crisp and pale green.
It can be refrigerated, tightly wrapped in plastic, for up to two weeks. Once cut, it should be used within a few days.
To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.