I recently had breakfast with my three-year old granddaughter Josephine, in a rather chi-chi diner of her choosing. When her pancake arrived it was garnished with a large strawberry and a purple-green sprig of cabbage.
Josephine announced that she does not like strawberries.
Surprised, I invited her to give the berry to me, and this she did, and then with a flourish, she forked over the cabbage sprig as well, with the disdainful comment, “And I don’t like broccoli!”
Without knowing it (I consider all my grandchildren geniuses, but only up to a point), Josephine had correctly surmised that the curly colorful leaf was a brassica—just not the right type. Clever child!
It was not until I was well into adulthood that I learned the Latin name for my green, leafy veggies, the ones your mother always ordered you to eat (but the brassica family does not, repeat, does not include spinach). The basic brassica is cabbage, a humble plant found growing wild just about everywhere in the world. Its name appends to all sorts of smelly cousins like swamp cabbage and skunk cabbage, and many brassicas are known for their hefty perfume. The brassica family is large with many eccentric relatives (my family is a bit like that). In-breeding and a little genetic experimentation (maybe you have that in your family too?) have resulted in many alterations to the simple cabbage plant.
Let’s start the brassica introductions with my favorite, brassica juncea: Mustard.
Since it’s commonly used in cooking in the Middle East, it could be one of the many plants that originated there. It is cruciform (a nice word meaning that its leaves form a cross). Its seeds, ground to powder, provide the color (ranging from bright yellow to coal black) and flavor (sharp, sharper, sharpest) for mustard, that condiment so beloved of hot dog and deli sandwich fans. When homegrown, it’s loaded with selenium because its roots go deep, mining the earth for minerals. From its tender youth to its mighty adult state, mustard leaves are tasty—either velvety sweet when small, or later, pungent, biting back a bit. We in the South combat its bite with a bitter, better biter—vinegar—making a salsa-like delicacy from what could be seen as merely a limp “mess” of greens.
Mustard seed is a symbol for potential. Jesus of Nazareth said, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” He didn’t mean that one’s faith should be small; he was speaking allegorically of the power of a tiny seed to produce great works of nature. Mustard has been fruitful and multiplied, spreading itself to the far corners of the globe, and allowing its simple form—dark green leaves, straight tall stalk and attractive yellow flowers—to be transmogrified into such weird conceptions as broccoli, cauliflower, collards, turnips, and kale, with colors that range from white and pale green to deep green and purple.
Because frankly, the brassica is a class-bounder, a wild, rather promiscuous leafy clump that has leapt way above its station in life, feeding the poor happily, but also gracing the plates of the elite in the form of purple cauliflower and Dijon poupon.
All the mutations and permutations of the brassica clan can be explained by the mysterious Triangle of U. U was a Korean (real name, Woo Jang-Chu) who in 1935 confirmed that three brassica varieties – Nigra (black mustard) , Oleracea (cabbage, kale, sprouts, and caulie) and Rapa (turnip and Chinese cabbage), were able to interbreed to create three more, and so ad infinitum.
The new combos were Napus (rapeseed and rutabaga), Juncea (Indian mustard) and Carinata (more mustard). And they went on combining.
But the question remains, how did brassica change its shape, its product, from a flat green leaf to huge weighty roots and pristine multi-colored florets?
The bio-dynamic gardening method introduced by Rudolf Steiner (and widely accepted in Europe as good husbandry) speaks of plants “expressing” one of their four essences: root, leaf, flower and fruit. Depending on the desired outcome, one plants at the proper phase of the moon. If you want a brassica that is leafy (such as kale) you would plant it when the moon is in a water sign. For a good root brassica like turnip, plant in the earth phase; air signs affect flowers that must interact with the air (like cauliflower), and fruits need strong energy, or fire (like the unfortunately named “rape” whose seed produces oil).
|Element||Plant Part Affected||Constellation|
|Earth||Root||Virgin, Goat, Bull|
|Water||Leaf||Scorpio, Fishes, Crab|
|Air||Flower||Scales, Waterman, Twins|
|Fire||Fruit||Archer, Ram, Lion|
I don’t suggest that all brassicas were developed by this careful, thoughtful method. But I do know a little about how breeding works. The rule seems to be, we humans get what we want, eventually. If a woman wants a lap-dog, she will cause one to be teased out through a few generations of mutts, by eliminating big dogs and aggressive dogs until she gets Fluff-fluff, the ideal pet. Whether it be producing Yorkie-poos from the grey wolf, or making a mustard plant renounce its flowering ability in favor of more leaves (cabbage, kale), or throw itself wholeheartedly into flowering (broccoli, cauliflower) or put all its energy in its roots (turnips), you can be sure that all these permutations came about because humans had a yen for them.
My husband Donnie and I moved a few years back from a rural small-holding to a millhouse on a postage-stamp lot in town. We have gradually bloomed our tiny pied a terre into an intensive small scale garden, with tomatoes, squash, mustard and berries abounding. Donnie, a man of the hills, opines that I should call brassicas “cole plants” to avoid being thought pretentious. He is correct—brassicas are cole plants. Indeed, you can use this useful fact to never again misspell the word “broccoli.” It can’t have two l’s, you see. Many other brassicas can be identified by the “cole” in the name: kohlrabi, collards, cauliflower, kale, cole porter (just kidding). But if you think of brassicas solely as plants named cole, you might ignore Colonel Mustard. And you would be omitting cabbage and watercress, and those evil, reputedly edible little balls of green leather known as Brussels sprouts (and Brussels can have them, as far as I’m concerned—I’m sure Josephine would agree). And what about chard? And that most intriguingly titled rutabaga?
Besides, “Brassica” has a lovely musical lilt that “cole” lacks. It is regal as befits the Queen of Green, an elegant but hard-working lady with many offspring, who has managed to keep her figure.
To my mind, the turnip is one of the least appetizing brassicas, but it offers itself as both a carbohydrate-rich root and a vitamin-rich green, so who am I to complain? And, cross turnips and cabbage, and voila! Rutabaga! Not only is this huge ball of wax a zesty-sweet addition to any stew, but it will feed your animals all through the winter, and you can carve masks out of it, as the Irish traditionally did, to scare off evil spirits on Halloween. The Irish made much of their brassicas, awarding them special status in the naming of a famous delicacy, Colcannon, or “cabbage white,” a wintry mixture of potatoes and cabbage or kale, itself immortalized in an old ditty:
Oh, wasn’t it the happy days when troubles we had not,
And our mothers made Colcannon in the little skillet pot.
If you take a broccoli and keep it out of the sun, will it turn into a cauliflower? The answer is: sort of. Even though, according to U, the cauliflower was a progenitor, not an offspring, it has a pesky way of not obeying the rules. Or maybe the problem lies in our belief that a cauliflower is a big white ball, when that wasn’t how it began life at all. If you have ever tried to grow cauliflower from seed you have collected, you will have found that left to its own devices, it reverts to any number of predecessor forms. It will want to be cabbage with a few spindly pale green florets, or just a rather unappealing collection of yellow stalks and leaves harking back to its days in the wild.
To make the big white “curds” that you want, you need to start with modern hybrid seed. As they grow, wrap the florets in their own large, cabbage-like leaves to keep the light from making them green. Or buy varieties that are “self-wrapping”—what a neat concept! Cauliflower will also want to change color: orange and purple are deviants that may arise, but if you seek those colors you need to buy mutant varieties that will produce true from bought seed. Otherwise, you will probably get a sloppy, slatternly cole that is barely edible and unappetizing in appearance, genetic monsters that will make adequate fodder for goats but hardly the gourmet treat you were hoping for.
And another caution: brassicas are notorious for bolting—too much heat (they like it cool and dreary) will make the plant panic and stop producing leaves, concentrating instead on flowers and seeds. It’s annoying because once the plant goes into bolt, the leaves won’t be good to eat. Cut your losses (and your plants) and move on. Luckily, though, some brassicas, like mustard, make excellent green manure.
So why mess with a plant group that can be so consarnit uppity? The secret to brassica’s survival is her sassy, brassy flavor. To be appreciated it should be eaten as fresh as possible. Store-bought is no substitute. Since late March, Donnie and I have been able to enjoy mustard greens every night, picked fresh. Our corpuscles are singing! Our taste buds are zinging! (Please note: we are modern, cholesterol-conscious Southerners, and never sully our greens with pig fat.)
Brassicas give us more than selenium, though that little appreciated element is important enough and hard to get in a world where factory farming, with its pernicious top feeding, keeps roots from getting down deep into the soil where they long to go. Cabbage used to be known as the “poor man’s medicine.” Brassicas provide Vitamin C, beta carotene, folic acid, and… flatulence…..whoops!
I like the way Hannah Holmes, on her website The Skinny On, explains the gaseous properties of cabbage (and this applies to some other brassicas as well though cabbage has a well-deserved reputation for producing the rudest moments). Please skip this next section if the whole idea of flatulence offends you:
“Beans, as well as such gassy goods as cabbage, soybeans, peas and onions, are naturally sweetened with a family of sugars called oligosaccharides. These sugars are big, clumsy molecules—too big to slip into your body through the lining of the small intestine. Normally enzymes in the small intestine would rush in and snap these molecules apart like Legos. But due to a gross oversight, an anti-oligosaccharide enzyme is not standard equipment in a human being. So these complex sugars pass unmolested through the small intestine and enter the large intestine still bearing valuable nutrients. Unabashed at digging into leftovers, the less reputable bacteria among the 200 strains in your large-intestine start to chow down. Their population grows as they divide into new generations to take advantage of the bounty. And as they gulp in the big sugars, they let out gas. In essence, your gut accumulates millions of wee bacterial farts.”
Now you have grown your first crop of cauliflower. It took a lot of energy, finagling, and minor skirmishes with Mother Nature. Was it worth it? The answer lies in what you do with the resultant curdy caulies.
Years ago I learned this recipe, refined it over time, and while in London I tried it out on a Cordon Bleu chef who demanded my secret:
Cheesy Cauliflower Soup with Garlic Bread Chunks
Gently boil and then finely chop a head of cauliflower, retaining the water.
Make a roux* and add one/half teaspoon of ground cardamom, two of ground coriander, and a large dash of salt. Slowly stir in one cup of grated cheese (parmesan is scrumptious, but the one you like best will do).
Once the mixture is of a smooth consistency, add the cauliflower pieces and the cauliflower water. That’s your soup. Keep it on a very low heat and….
Throw about half a loaf’s worth of bread chunks (whole wheat, rye, sourdough) in a pan with liberal amounts of butter and a tablespoon of garlic (or more—no such thing as too much garlic, right?).
Serve the cauliflower soup with the pan-roasted garlicky bread chunks (not store-bought croutons, puh-leez) on top. Be prepared for compliments. This is a no-fail kudo-magnet.
Have a dog handy to blame the flatulence on.
*Roux: Melt two tablespoons of butter on very low heat. Add two tablespoons of flour (whole wheat is okay). Slowly and gently stir until you have a smooth paste, then add one cup of milk and continue to stir slowly until you have a smooth mixture.
No matter where you were born or where your family came from, it’s almost certain you grew up being ordered to eat some form of brassica. It’s a refined taste, but one we all need to learn to love. Even Josephine.
While writing this article I conceived a Cunning Plan: next time Josephine rejects her brassicas, I will tell her that Brassica is the Queen of Green, and demands to be eaten. I think Josephine will swallow it.