Jane Says: It’s Time to Think Beyond Kale

We’re all eating the hippest of greens, but Red Russian and lacinato are only the beginning of the brassica world.

(Photo: Charles Smith/Flickr)

Jan 28, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“I’ve successfully worked kale into my family’s meals! But they’re still suspicious of vegetables like broccoli, which I know are also heavy hitters, nutrition-wise. How can I get them out of the kale rut?”

Cole Musgraves

A decade ago, we never thought that kale would be a common element on dining tables—let alone salad and juice bars across the land. A true breakthrough green, it remains extremely popular, but it pays to mix it up at mealtime, to keep boredom at bay as well as for optimal nutrition. Like broccoli, kale belongs to a family of plants called Brassicaceae, or sometimes by its older name, Cruciferae. It runs the gamut from a to, well, almost z, with members that include arugula, broccoli rabe, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kohlrabi, radishes, rutabagas, turnips, and watercress. All brassicas are packed with varying amounts of dietary fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins and minerals, including vitamins C and E, folic acid, potassium, iron and selenium. Being a significant source of nutrients and bioactive compounds, combined with their availability at supermarkets and farmers markets, makes brassicas a win-win choice for the home cook.

Or so it would seem. The difficulty lies in that these very vegetables are typically the ones that the veg-phobic cannot stand. Some are perceived as too bitter, harsh, or overbearing (broccoli rabe, turnips); others, too watery or bland (cabbage, cauliflower). For many people, the turnoff is an off-putting smell that comes from sulfur-rich compounds called glucosinolates. But while they may be capable of creating a stink, when glucosinolates are chopped or chewed, they release myrosinase, an enzyme that breaks them down into compounds such as isothiocyanates and indoles, which may inhibit cancer development. Thankfully, buying fresh brassicas (take a deep whiff; there should be no trace of odor) and cooking them carefully will solve any odor problem.

That brings us into the kitchen. One handy opportunity for introducing various brassicas into your family’s repertoire is the convivial time before dinner when everyone is absolutely starving. Instead of breaking out the chips and salsa, serve raw florets of cauliflower and broccoli, trimmed radishes, sticks of kohlrabi, and slices of scrubbed Japanese turnips (they’re so tender, you don’t have to peel them) with a dish of sea salt or a homemade version of a favorite dressing (ranch is always a hit).

On Mild Brassicas

Cauliflower is a terrific gateway brassica, in large part because the simple technique of roasting seems to turn any whiff of sulfur into a rich, seductive nuttiness. Cut into florets and tossed with salt, pepper, and olive oil, cauliflower takes about 15 minutes in a 450° oven to turn golden and toasty. You can serve it as a side dish or shoveled over cooked pasta moistened with a little chicken or vegetable broth. Just add toasted breadcrumbs or pine nuts, or simply some grated Parm. If you’re not rushing to get a weeknight dinner on the table, you might want to try slow-roasting an entire head of cauliflower until tender. The prep is dead simple, and the novelty, drama, and tenderness of the result is bound to win converts. Cauliflower is also aces in my book because it’s so versatile; it can handle everything from a classic cheese sauce, Turkish tarator sauce, or store-bought Indian simmer sauce (I’m partial to that made by Maya Kaimal) with aplomb.

Kohlrabi is another mild brassica that is delicious either raw or cooked. The same is true of cabbage, whether in a lightly dressed slaw or cut into thin ribbons and sautéed quickly with an onion, say, and some caraway seeds or crushed juniper berries until crisp-tender. Savoy cabbage, with its loose head of crinkled leaves, is typically sweeter than a smooth, dense, round “Dutch head” cabbage and is especially good with lacinato (tuscan) kale in minestrone or cooked very simply with potatoes.

Collards are basically a type of nonheading cabbage, and despite their thick, leathery leaves, they are mild in flavor. They’re delicious braised long and slow with a ham hock or smoked turkey wing, or shredded and cooked quickly, in the Brazilian style.

On Robust Brassicas

Our increasing enjoyment of strongly flavored greens in the United States has much to do with our undying love affair with Italian food. A bed of peppery arugula under a steak, for instance, provides a great counterpoint to the richness of the meat. The sharp, mustardy bite of broccoli rabe (which is more closely related to the turnip than to regular broccoli) does the same sort of thing. Sauté it in olive oil with garlic and red pepper flakes and serve it with roast pork loin, thick pork chops, or even your favorite roast chicken. Odds are, people will gobble it up. The key to picking broccoli rabe that’s pleasingly bitter but not harsh is twofold. Look for bunches that have tightly closed buds, not yellow flowers. Before sautéing it, first blanch it in a large pot of boiling salted water until the stems are crisp-tender, about five minutes. Drain, then put in a bowl of ice water; drain again and pat dry before sautéing.

Broccoli is a famously spurned brassica, but a genius technique from my former Gourmet colleague Zanne Stewart miraculously transforms it into something resembling pesto. Simply chop the broccoli into smallish pieces (including the stems, if desired) and cook it with pasta and a couple of garlic cloves skewered on toothpicks (for easy removal afterward). Reserve some pasta water before draining, then toss a little of that and a generous sprinkle of Parm with the hot pasta and broccoli to make a light sauce. No one at the table will really catch on to what they’re eating. Brown mustard seeds toasted in melted butter, then given a boost by a dollop of horseradish (another brassica) stirred in, enriches plain steamed broccoli. I also like to pair an assertively flavored brassica such as broccoli with a sweet vegetable—carrots for instance—and unify the two with gingered butter.

Brussels sprouts are seen as difficult to love too, but when they’re at their best—that is, after a freeze turns them sweet—they can be almost addictive, especially when pan-browned in butter. Sprouts turn fluffy when shredded into thin strips, serving to lighten a kale salad, or make a quick-cooking hot slaw that’s wonderful with burgers or broiled sausages.

The rather brusque, rustic sharpness of turnips adds a layer of flavor to many soups and stews that you’d miss if they weren’t there. I’m very partial to a turnip purée—made with bacon and shallots to take it far away from the “baby food” place. Small, tender, sweet Japanese turnips (sometimes labeled Hakurei) were how I eased into appreciating this vegetable, and my go-to recipe for those, Japanese Turnips With Miso—from another Gourmet pal, Maggie Ruggiero—is one of my favorite vegetable recipes ever.

Rutabagas, sometimes called swedes or yellow turnips, are a cross between the turnip and the cabbage, and they’re the star of the Scottish dish called clapshot—mashed potatoes and rutabaga. Along with haggis, clapshot is traditionally eaten in Scotland on Burns Night, January 25, but it’s terrific with venison, duck, or steak as well. Rutabagas look like huge turnips, and those sold at supermarkets usually have a wax coating. Peel rutabagas with a sturdy Y-shaped peeler, or use a paring knife to slice off one end (to make a flat surface), then remove the skin in lengthwise strips. Medium rutabagas are preferable to the supersized ones, which tend to have woody cores.

When it comes to peppery, spicy greens such as arugula or watercress, it’s fine to add them to a salad of mild lettuces, but know that you can sauté them too. Sautéing mellows radishes as well.

Lastly, waste not, want not. Brassica leaves are edible, so feel free to add broccoli or cauliflower leaves to a stir-fry, for example, or use tender, young (and well-washed, to remove any sand) radish leaves to spice up an otherwise bland salad.