Crossbreed broccoli and Chinese kale and the result is broccolini, a brassica vegetable with a peppery edge. Broccoli is also bred with cauliflower to create broccoflower, a strange mix of texture that sweetens the broccoli and tarts up the cauliflower.
The brassica vegetable family is an old family, with cabbage dating back 4000 years. Broccoli traces back to ancient Greece and Rome. Brussel sprouts, an admittedly less popular branch of the family, was founded in Brussels in the 18th century. Cauliflower is the brassica cousin from the Middle East, and because it’s a bit challenging to grow, tends to be more expensive.
The brassica family is part of the mustard family, also known as the crucifer family. Many of the big leafy greens you see bundled in the produce section of your supermarket are members of the mustard family. Mustard greens, collards and kale are cousins to broccoli, sprouts and cauliflower, but are more closely related to cabbage.
Where the former group forms edible heads, the latter offers up wide green leaves on sturdy stems. The edges of the leaves can be curly and scalloped, or straight-edged.
The family history of brassica vegetables is all well and good, but how do you, as the chief cook and bottle washer, prepare these veggies so your family will eat them?
Saute kale, collards and mustard greens in a little olive oil. Squeeze lemon juice over them and sprinkle with dried thyme just before serving as a side dish. Kale, and in particular Chinese kale, may be added to stir-fry.
Cook your collard greens the traditional southern way, long and slow. Put them in a pot with boiling water and a ham hock and the tough texture and bitter taste will smooth out, making for a sweet and savory side dish. The juice can even be used as a nutritional drink, a product known as ‘pot likker’, not to be confused with liquor.
Broccoli salad is a great way to get kids to eat this member of the brassica family. Blanch the broccoli and shock in cold water. In a bowl, mix mayonnaise, ranch dressing, shredded cheddar cheese and chopped bacon. Add the broccoli and stir to combine.
Eating your greens fortifies your diet with important antioxidants and nutrients. High in glucosinolate, the brassica vegetables are thought to provide protection against cancer. Studies in Sweden, though inconclusive, demonstrate there may be a link between the amount of broccoli, sprouts and cabbage a menopausal woman consumes on a daily basis and her level of risk for breast cancer.
As powerful as the brassica and mustard families are when it comes to nutrition, you should also know of the darker family secret.
These great foods can disrupt your thyroid production, leading to hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism and goiter. Their chemical compounds interfere with iodine uptake, an essential element for a healthy thyroid.
Does this mean you should never eat any of these great foods if you have a thyroid disorder? Not necessarily. But you shouldn’t consume brassica vegetables on a daily basis if your thyroid performs at less than optimum levels.
Another word of caution: Don’t eat these foods raw. The brassica and mustard families need to be cooked. The occasional raw bit of broccoli with dip won’t harm you, but continually eating raw cabbage, broccoli or cauliflower will result in gastrointestinal disorders. Your friends will not want to hang around you during the digestive process.
The leafy greens tend toward bitter, peppery tastes. Cooking them smoothes those tendencies out, making them palpable to the palate.
The centuries old legacies of these vegetables demonstrate their adaptability to changing climates, their culinary diversity and their ability to continually attract the attention of cooks and chefs throughout the world. Invite a brassica to dinner tonight.