Come Meet the Grand Dames of the Brassica Family!

By Zel Allen

While some large families find it hard to get along, the Brassica family loves being together, in spite of its impressively large size. Gather Brassicas in a salad bowl and they zing! Steam them together to create a meal in a bowl, and they dance with joy.

The Brassicas are a delight to know. Formally, they're called Brassicaceae or Cruciferae, but their very informal family members are well known cousins. Living in the neighborhood are watercress, bok choy, all broccoli and cabbage varieties, choy sum, Swiss chard, tatsoi, arugula, rutabagas, radishes, Daikon, horseradish, kale, collards, turnips and their greens, mustard greens, and arugula. Also in the hood are mustard seeds and mustard oils.

History Reveals Surprises

The ancient Greeks had some pretty interesting thoughts about the origin of their cabbages and attributed their evolution to Zeus, chief of the Gods. They said he worked himself into a dripping sweat whenever his mind was struggling with conflicting predictions. From his roiling sweat sprang cabbages.

Sometimes historians are like detectives with their keen observations. By carefully observing details in ancient Egyptian wall paintings and bas-relief artwork, they noticed Egyptians were well acquainted with cabbage on their dinner plates. Those greens were not the plump, nicely-formed round heads we buy at the grocery today. The ancients were cooking headless cabbage, or leafy greens, more like our kale and mustard greens.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed they had a great remedy to prevent drunkenness. Before heading out to a big party, they devoured hearty servings of cabbage, believing the cabbage would protect them from getting tipsy. While it may not have staved off drunkenness, the cabbage certainly gave them a great boost of healthy antioxidants.

Herodotus Exaggerated

Herodotus, the 5th century B.C.E Greek writer, was prone to exaggeration. He wrote there were hieroglyphics on the Great Pyramid walls describing enormous amounts of money spent on radishes, onions, and garlic eaten by the slave builders of the pyramid. The amount mentioned would have equaled about $30,000 today. While that amount sounds like a tall tale, there were many ancient records and paintings depicting these vegetables. It seems the Egyptians liked these pungent veggies as far back as 2400 B.C.E.

Pliny, a first-century Roman naturalist and writer, described a giant radish that weighed about seven pounds, about the size of a baby boy. European writers bested Pliny and told of a colossal radish that weighed 100 pounds.

One might say kale and cabbage are brother and sister because they came from the same great, great, great grandfather of the Brassica veggies. They began as colewort and eventually sprouted into cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts at different times in history.

Ancient colewort lives on today! Present day Atlantic coast perennial gardens feature an attractive, large, leafy border plant that is actually the wild ancestor of kale. Colewort, known by many names (field cabbage, crambe cordifolia, sea kale), produces fleshy leaves bigger than a hand and flowers into a large spray of white blossoms.

Sauerkraut Did Not Originate in Germany

While it's natural to assume sauerkraut originated in Germany, especially because the words sauer and kraut are German, it was the Chinese who were fermenting cabbage more than 2,000 years ago as a way to preserve it. Anyone for a Reuben sandwich?

A kaleyard is the Scottish term referring to a field of kale. Historically, the Scotts ate kale for their evening meal so often, they used the word kale synonymously with their dinner hour. Instead of ringing the dinner bell, they rang the kale bells.

Imagine a Roman war hero in 3rd century B.C.E. turning down enormous sums of money to defect to the other side. Curius Dentatus was simply enjoying his roasted turnips so much he wasn't the least bit tempted by the giant stash of cash. He made a delicious discovery when he roasted his turnips over a hot fire and they turned sweet. The science behind that fact is high heat causes the starch to turn to sugar. Early humans who first climbed down from the trees were hunter-gatherers who foraged for foods growing above the ground. When those foods weren't enough or became scarce, they had to dig for their dinner. They dined on roots and bulbs like wild radishes, turnips, cabbage, and onions. Many of the foods we eat today were part of prehistoric man's diet.

During the first millennium A.D., the cold wintertime season meant fewer vegetables on the plate, but cabbage and kale could be counted on for a hearty, warming stew flavored with onions.

Cooking tips

  • Hard water can be quite alkaline, causing the familiar red anthocyanin pigment in red cabbage to change to an odd bluish color when cooked. To retain the bright purple color of red cabbage, cook it with acidic ingredients like lemon juice, vinegar, wine, or acidic fruits.
  • Does the kitchen smell of unpleasantly sulfurous odors after cooking cabbage? Avoid cabbage stink by cutting the cabbage into long, thin shreds and stir-frying it in oil. Coating the surface of the cabbage seals in the sulfurous odors.
  • To get the most health benefits from consuming broccoli, eat the stems and leaves as well as the florets. Many people toss out the leaves, but they're the most nutritious, followed by the florets, then the stems.
  • In the Middle East, hot pink pickled turnips are a common meal accompaniment. What turns them pink? Beet juice in the pickling brine.
  • If dark leafy greens seem too bitter to enjoy, tame those bitter bites with robust flavors from onions, garlic, ginger, chilies, balsamic vinegar or other flavored vinegar, lemon or lime juice, or soy sauce. Sweet foods like raisins, dates, apples, mangos, pineapples, jicama, tangerines, oranges, and dried cranberries also help to counteract those pungent leafy greens.

Health Benefits

While many of our ancestors and our savvy moms knew these vegetables were healthful, the veggies never quite earned the respect they are gaining now. Today's scientists have discovered hundreds of powerful phytochemicals contained in broccoli and cauliflower or bunches of kale, mustard greens, and bok choy. These compounds called glucosinolates actually contain properties that can prevent the growth of cancer.

Brassicas possess high levels of carotenoids, vitamin C, folic acid, and fiber. Their deep, rich colors are clear indicators of their high antioxidant content.

Asian Cauliflower Salad

(Serves 5-6)

Here's an easy side salad that features the flavors of Southeast Asia and makes a tasty addition to the buffet table any time of year.

  • ½ small cauliflower, trimmed and finely chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup water
  • Half 5-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, drained and coarsely chopped
  • 1 Persian cucumber, diced
  • ½ red bell pepper, diced
  • ½ cup raisins plus ¼ cup for garnish
  • ¼ cup shredded unsweetened coconut
  • 1 green onion, minced
  • 2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 Tablespoon sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ⅛ to ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 head romaine or green leaf lettuce
  • 1 to 2 Tablespoons minced cilantro

Put the cauliflower and carrot slices in a large, deep skillet. Add the water and cook and stir over high heat for about two minutes. Turn off the heat and use a slotted spoon to transfer the vegetables to a large bowl.

Add the water chestnuts, cucumber, bell pepper, ½ cup of the raisins, coconut, green onion, lemon juice, sesame oil, sesame seeds, vinegar, salt, and cayenne. Mix well to coat all the vegetables and distribute seasonings evenly.

Line a serving bowl or platter with lettuce leaves and spoon the salad into the center. For the finishing touch, sprinkle the reserved ¼ cup raisins over the top and add a sprinkle of cilantro.

Total calories per serving: 203 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 29 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 265 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Balsamic Dijon Brussels Sprouts

(Serves 5-6)

Something about Brussels sprouts stirs up my creative urge to play with ways to bring out the best in this awesome vegetable. I chose Dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, and maple syrup, familiar items that probably live in many home pantries.

  • 1 pound Brussels sprouts, thinly sliced crosswise
  • 3 Tablespoons water
  • 1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 ½ Tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 large tangerine, wedges separated and halved

Put the Brussels sprouts, water, and oil in a large, deep skillet. Cook and stir over high heat for about 4-5 minutes, or until tender. Add 1 or more Tablespoons of water as needed to keep the sprouts moist.

While the sprouts are cooking, combine the mustard, vinegar, syrup, and salt in a small bowl and mix well.

When the sprouts are tender, turn off the heat and add the Dijon mixture; toss the sprouts until they are well coated. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with a border of tangerines.

Total calories per serving: 84 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 12 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 248 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

A Quartet of Brassy Pickles

(Makes 3 quarts)

Pickles make a delicious accompaniment to any meal. The pickles will also brighten up the dinner plate.

Pickling Brine

  • 4 ½ cups water
  • 3 cups distilled vinegar
  • ¼ cup organic sugar
  • 6 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 2 Tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoons mustard seeds
  • 1 ½ teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns


  • 12 large radishes, stems and tails trimmed
  • 1 Daikon radish, peeled and sliced into ½-inch-thick rounds (about 1 pound)
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch-thick sticks, (about ¾ pound)
  • 2 medium rutabagas, peeled and cut into ½-inch-thick sticks, (about 1 pound)
  • 1 small turnip, peeled and cut into ½-inch-thick wedges, (about ¼ pound)
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces

Combine all the pickling brine ingredients in a 6- to 8-quart stockpot. Cover the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil for 1 minute to dissolve the salt and sugar. Turn off the heat and set aside. Prepare the vegetables.

When all the vegetables are peeled and cut, bring the brine to a boil and add the vegetables. Boil, uncovered, for about 2 minutes, then turn off the heat and set aside until completely cool.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the vegetables to one or more glass jars, filling them to the top. Add the brine, covering the vegetables completely. Seal the jars and put them in the refrigerator. Allow the pickles to marinate for at least 1 week. Refrigerated, the vegetables will keep for up to 3 months.

Total calories per ¼ cup serving: 12 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 77 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

The Grand Brassi Salad

(Serves 5-6)

This salad is a Brassica family reunion: Everything but the edamame, tomatoes, and walnuts is a family member.

  • 1 medium broccoli crown, cut into bite-size florets
  • ¼ small cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
  • 5 Brussels sprouts, quartered
  • 2 large collard leaves, ribs discarded, chopped
  • 2 large kale leaves, ribs discarded, chopped
  • 2 large mustard leaves, ribs discarded, chopped
  • 2 leaves bok choy, chopped
  • Generous handful arugula leaves, chopped
  • ½ bunch watercress, chopped
  • 1 medium kohlrabi, peeled, cut into 1-inch long thin julienne
  • 1 small turnip, peeled and diced
  • 1 cup shredded red cabbage
  • ½ bunch radishes, sliced
  • 1 ½ cups cooked, shelled edamame
  • ½ cup toasted walnuts or pecans
  • ½ pint grape tomatoes, halved
  • ½ recipe Creamy Cauliflower Dressing (see page 19)

Combine broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts in a steamer and steam until tender, about 4-6 minutes. Set aside.

Arrange collards, kale, mustard, bok choy, arugula, and watercress in an extra-large salad bowl. Layer kohlrabi, turnip, red cabbage, and radishes over greens. Scatter the steamed vegetables and cooked edamame over the top, and put the walnuts into the center. For the finishing touch, form a ring of grape tomatoes around the edge of the bowl. Toss the salad well.

Serve with Creamy Cauliflower Dressing on the side. Store leftovers in the refrigerator. Undressed, the salad will keep an extra day.

Total calories per serving: 280 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 33 grams Protein: 18 grams
Sodium: 491 milligrams Fiber: 14 grams

Penny Pinching Cauliflower Surprise

(Serves 2)

Habitually, many of us home cooks cut the leaves from a fresh head of cauliflower and discard them without realizing they are nutritious and tasty. These leaves can be seasoned and spiced in imaginative and delicious ways.

  • Leaves and core from 1 head cauliflower
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, cut into thin wedges
  • 2-3 large collard leaves, ribs discarded, leaves chopped
  • 1 purple onion, halved and sliced into half-moons
  • 4-6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons water
  • 1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons sesame oil
  • Finely minced zest from ½ lemon
  • Pinch cayenne, or to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 green onion, sliced, for garnish
  • 5 cherry tomatoes, halved, for garnish

Wash the cauliflower leaves thoroughly and trim away only the dark brown ends.

Slice the leaves and core thinly and put them in a large skillet. Add the tomatoes, collards, onion, garlic, water, and olive oil. Cook and stir over high heat for about 2 minutes. Add 1 or more tablespoons of water as needed to cook the leaves and prevent burning.

Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low, and steam for about 10-12 minutes, or until the leaves are fork tender.

Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice, vinegar, sesame oil, lemon zest, and cayenne. Season with salt and pepper and mix well. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with the green onion and cherry tomatoes.

Total calories per serving: 238 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 33 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 106 milligrams Fiber: 12 grams

Cabbage Salad with Vegan Cheese

(Serves 6)

Lunch is pure delight with this delicious, cheese-infused salad that features crunchy green cabbage with accents of black olives and bell peppers. Hidden among the cabbage are bits of coarsely-ground walnuts and shreds of vegan cheese, giving the salad a wholesome touch.

  • 1 red bell pepper, divided
  • 2 ½ cups diced green cabbage
  • 1 ¼ cups minced parsley
  • 1 cup finely chopped purple cabbage
  • ⅔ cup shredded vegan mozzarella
  • ⅓ cup toasted, coarsely ground walnuts
  • 10 black olives, sliced
  • 6 button mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Cluster of mint, for garnish

Dice the red bell pepper and put ¾ of the pieces in a large bowl. Set the remaining diced peppers aside for garnish.

Add the remaining ingredients, except the mint leaves, to the bowl and mix well to distribute the vegetables evenly.

Transfer the salad to an attractive serving bowl and sprinkle the top with the reserved diced red peppers. For the finishing touch, poke the cluster of mint leaves into the center.

Total calories per serving: 125 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 10 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 401 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Hail Caesar Kale Chips

(Makes 4 cups)

These intensely-flavored kale chips make unique appetizers. Because the chips dehydrate in the oven, they shrink markedly and the quantity looks considerably smaller than when it entered the oven.

  • 1 large bunch fresh kale
  • Dipping Sauce
  • 1 cup unsalted cashews
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup plus 2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons nutritional yeast flakes
  • 1 Tablespoon plus 1 ½ teaspoons dark miso
  • 1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon vegan Parmesan
  • 1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
  • ¾ teaspoon xanthan gum or guar gum
  • Paprika

To prepare the kale, have two large rimmed baking sheets lined with parchment ready. Wash and dry the kale and remove and discard the tough ribs. Tear the kale leaves into 1 ½-inch pieces and put them in a large bowl. Set aside and preheat the oven to 200 degrees.

To make the dipping sauce, put all the sauce ingredients, except the paprika, into the blender and process on high speed until smooth and creamy. Pour the sauce mixture into the bowl with the kale.

Use your hands to mix the sauce and kale together. Make sure all the pieces are well coated. Arrange the kale pieces close together on the baking sheets. Alternatively, dip each piece of kale into the Dipping Sauce, gently shake or rub off the excess, and place the pieces on the parchment-lined pan. Each piece should be completely covered with a light coating of the sauce. Lightly dust the tops with paprika.

Put the baking sheets in the oven and slowly roast the kale chips for 2 ½ hours, or until they are completely dry and very crisp. Timing varies depending on how thickly the dipping sauce is applied. Cool completely and store at room temperature in a covered container for up to 1 week.

Total calories per ¼ cup serving: 76 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 8 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 303 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Baked Potatoes with Brussels Sprout Pesto

(Makes 4 servings)

These are very lavishly stuffed potatoes. For convenience, prepare pesto a day or two ahead. It keeps well without losing flavor. Spice lovers can add a pinch of cayenne. In place of the garnishes, you could also dot the tops with Sriracha or spread a spoonful of salsa across the tops and finish with sliced black olives.

  • 4 large baking potatoes
  • Pesto
  • ½ pound fresh Brussels sprouts
  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2-4 Tablespoons cooking water
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 green onion, green part only, chopped, for garnish
  • 4 black olives, chopped, for garnish
  • 4 cherry tomatoes, quartered, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment.

Scrub the potatoes, put them on the baking sheet, and bake for 1 hour, or until soft when gently squeezed.

Trim the ends of the Brussels sprouts, if needed, and cut them in half lengthwise. Put the sprouts in a 2-quart saucepan with 1 cup of water. Cover and bring to a boil on high heat. Reduce the heat to low and steam for 6 to 8 minutes, or until sprouts are tender.

Transfer the sprouts and 2-4 Tablespoons of the cooking water to a food processor and add the pine nuts, olive oil, salt, garlic, and pepper; process until thick and creamy.

When the potatoes are done, put them on a dish and cut a slit the length of the potato. Press both ends toward the center to open the potato, and mash it briefly. Spoon a portion of the Brussels sprout pesto into the potato, mashing it well to blend it with some of the potato.

To garnish, sprinkle the tops with the chopped green onions, olives, and cherry tomatoes.

Total calories per serving: 436 Fat: 26 grams
Carbohydrates: 47 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 210 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Creamy Cauliflower Dressing

(Makes about 3 ¼ cups)

This unique salad dressing is one of those delicious inspirations I'm delighted to share.

  • 1 small head cauliflower (about 1 pound)
  • 1 ½ cups water, divided
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • ¼ cup white miso
  • 1 Tablespoon lite soy sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon xanthan gum

Trim the leaves and thick stem from the cauliflower and save them to cook as a side dish. Cut the cauliflower into similar size florets and put them in a 2-quart saucepan. Add 1 ¼ cups of the water, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low and steam for 10 minutes, or until the florets are very soft. Cool briefly and transfer the cauliflower and all the water in the pot to a blender.

Add the remaining ¼ cup water, along with the vinegar, miso, soy sauce, garlic, pepper, salt, and xanthan gum. Process until smooth and creamy.

Pour into 2 narrow-neck bottles for easy serving and use immediately or chill and use later. Refrigerated, the Creamy Cauliflower Dressing will keep for up to 5 days.

Total calories per 2 Tablespoon serving: 11 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 2 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 150 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Chinese Style Kohlrabi Cakes

(Makes about twenty 1 ½-inch patties, serving 5-6)

These colorful little patties make perfect appetizer bites that can be served warm, cold, or at room temperature. They're easy to assemble and can be made up to two days ahead. The recipe includes Vegan Egg, a powdered egg replacer made by Follow Your Heart, and available in natural foods markets. Serve the veggie cakes with Asian dipping sauce on the side.

  • 1 medium kohlrabi (about ½ pound), peeled and coarsely shredded
  • 1 small carrot, peeled and coarsely shredded
  • 1 cup coarsely shredded Daikon radish
  • ½ cup chopped green onions
  • ½ cup diced red bell pepper
  • ½ cup brown rice flour
  • 1 Tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • ½ cup ice cold water
  • 2 Tablespoons Vegan Egg powder

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment.

In a large bowl, combine the kohlrabi, carrot, Daikon, onions, bell pepper, flour, sesame seeds, sesame oil, salt, and garlic. Mix well to distribute the ingredients evenly.

In a small bowl, combine the water and Vegan Egg and beat with a fork or whisk for a full minute, or until lightly thickened. Add the Vegan Egg to the kohlrabi bowl and mix well to incorporate it completely.

Spoon 2 rounded Tablespoons of the kohlrabi mixture for each patty onto the prepared baking sheet. Use your fingers to form small patties about 1 ½ inches in diameter.

Bake 15 minutes and turn the patties over. Switch the pans' oven rack positions and bake 12-15 minutes longer. Allow the patties to stand about 10-15 minutes to firm before serving.

Total calories per serving: 123 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 22 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 377 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Asian Dipping Sauce

(Makes ⅓ cup)

  • 2 Tablespoons lite soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon mirin
  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger
  • 1 ½ teaspoons sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. Serve on the side.

Total calories per 1 Tablespoon serving: 25 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 267 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Rainbow Kaleslaw with Grapes and Roasted Peanuts

(Serves 9)

This is a party salad that feeds a crowd and looks great on the table. While a light, clear dressing will allow all the bright colors of this hearty salad to sparkle, a thick, well-seasoned, creamy dressing will contribute richer flavor to compensate for the kale's sharp bite.

  • 1 large bunch fresh kale, ribs discarded, leaves torn into small bite-size pieces
  • ½ head romaine lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
  • 1 bunch fresh mint leaves, minced
  • 1 bunch radishes, sliced
  • 2 yellow bell peppers, diced
  • 2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely shredded
  • 3 cups finely shredded purple cabbage
  • 3 cups finely shredded green cabbage
  • 1 ½ cups seedless red grapes, cut in half
  • 1 cup toasted, coarsely chopped peanuts
  • 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
  • ½ cup of Creamy Cauliflower Dressing

In an extra-large bowl, combine the kale, romaine, mint, radishes, yellow bell peppers, carrots, purple and green cabbage, and grapes and toss well to distribute the vegetables evenly.

Heap the chopped peanuts into the center and arrange the cherry tomatoes to form a border around the edge of the bowl.

Bring the salad to the table and toss it with the salad dressing or serve the dressing on the side.

Total calories per serving: 181 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 22 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 120 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Zel Allen is a regular contributor to Vegetarian Journal. She resides in California.