Call them brassicas, crucifers, cabbages, or mustards. Chances are you've eaten one this week. The family includes arugula, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, radishes, turnips, and cabbage. All start out as seedlings with two fan-shaped leaves, all have a certain pungency or bitterness from sulfur compounds, and all enjoy a reputation for radical wholesomeness.
Because of the sulfur compounds, brassicas can pose some challenges in the kitchen. "Brassicas: Cooking the World's Healthiest Vegetables," from former Food & Wine associate editor Laura B. Russell, offers a comprehensive overview of brassicas, whether sprout, leaf, stem, or root, and offers a multitude of ways to tame or complement their assertive flavors.
Russell's approach typically involves using equally powerful ingredients in concert with the brassicas. A leek and broccoli soup is like the cream of broccoli you already know and love, but without the cream. Melted leeks provide a scaffolding of ample, buttery flavor. Salt lovers will make short work of "miso-glazed" kale and shiitakes, although the miso is more pasty than glaze-like, saturating every wilted leaf with its flavor. Collard greens get a quick skillet treatment with cumin and coriander, enough for a quick and dirty dusting of flavor, though it's not like the bone-deep, hammy simmer of long-cooked Southern collards.
Brussels sprouts are roasted and tossed with vinegar at the last moment to cut the savory Parmesan crust, though they'd be better (like most Brussels sprouts) quartered than halved.
It's a fundamental truth about broccoli that after a while, its cabbage-y goodness starts to wear on you, but a scattering of simple granola with sweet golden raisins provides enough distraction to keep the broccoli interesting through second helpings.
A spoonful of sweetness can make all the difference for some brassicas: Brussels sprouts charred in a skillet are pedestrian till the last moment, when melted fig preserves and seared pancetta perform such a miracle on the sprouts that you'll see everyone fighting over seconds. Firm and starchy rutabagas get a roast-potato treatment: scented with rosemary, caramel-coated with a little maple (though I think they'd be better cut in dice smaller than an inch, for greater relative surface area).
Some leafy brassicas make good substitutes for spinach: strands of wilted watercress tangle with soba noodles with little more than soy sauce and chile for seasoning. Arugula's peppery freshness contends with salty prosciutto and soft ricotta in a white pizza; it's just as bracing against a backdrop of chopped dates and nutty roasted cauliflower in a versatile salad that's both substantial and brisk in flavor.
Only one variation on the pork-and-brassica combination fails to win me over: Sliced baby turnips, smoked ham, and cider vinegar sound like a winning formula, but my turnips refuse to soften in the 5 minutes prescribed. I improvise by throwing in some vegetable broth to help simmer them along. It works, but the sweetness I thought would arrive with the tenderness never does.
Although fresh cabbages and broccoli flood the market during harvest time in late summer and early fall, brassicas are really a year-round proposition. The greens are available in spring and summer, and the autumn roots and cabbages often store well into winter. There's one for every table and every occasion, and this book goes a long way toward easing these healthful greens onto the menu throughout the year.