Embracing Brassicas

Brassicas comp 17.inddPut cruciferous vegetables in the spotlight and reap the nutritional—and tasty—rewards.

By Laura B. Russell

Most of us know that good nutrition plays a crucial role in longterm well-being, yet there is a growing disconnect between the overwhelming nutritional choices available to us and our ability to end up with something both healthful and delicious on our plates. We are bombarded with “healthy eating” information at every turn, frequently confronted with the task of deciphering contradictory dietary directives. Is it surprising that when faced with the straightforward instruction to “eat more vegetables” it is hard to know where to begin?

Why not start with the captivating family of vegetables known as brassicas? Also called cruciferous vegetables, the brassicas encompass a wide range of flavors, from the sweetness of Napa cabbage to grassy Chinese broccoli, peppery radishes, and pungent horseradish. Collard greens taste earthy, kale boasts a mineral-like tang, and cauliflower has a faint nuttiness. The group holds an unwarranted reputation for having strong flavors and smells, but those traits usually emerge as the result of overcooking or other less-than-ideal preparation techniques.

Let’s stop boiling cabbage to death and burying broccoli under a blanket of cheese and instead investigate proper handling methods that play to each vegetable’s strength. Coax sweetness from Brussels sprouts through proper roasting; highlight the peppery punch of arugula in a simple salad; disarm the pungency of mustard greens by pairing them with a sweet friend like caramelized onions. Try brassicas raw, wilted, sautéed, grilled, roasted, or pickled; steam them gently to keep them from becoming waterlogged. And for vegetables that may have a bitter edge, such as broccoli rabe, balance that bitterness by adding a starchy counterpart, like beans or polenta, or a touch of dairy, such as a dollop of creamy goat cheese. You can also punch up bold flavors even more with a touch of spice—red-pepper flakes or mustard—or a salty hint of bacon, capers, anchovies, or olives.

Brassicas are truly the nutritional powerhouses of the vegetable world, containing an extensive variety of vitamins, minerals, and sulfur-rich phytonutrients. Many brassicas, especially the leafy greens, have a high fiber content, and all are low in calories, ranging from 4 (arugula and cress) to 40 (Brussels sprouts) calories per cup. If you have avoided brassicas in the past, see if a modern approach to cooking them just might convince you to make these vital vegetables a part of your daily routine.

Recipes

White Pizza with Arugula and Prosciutto

You are likely more familiar with arugula as a simple salad green than as a salad-on-top-of-a-pizza green. Here the residual heat from the crust and the creamy warmth of the ricotta temper the peppery bite of the arugula, which is why pizzas like this one are popular on menus across the country. Many grocery stores and pizza parlors sell premade pizza dough, which makes this recipe perfect for weeknight cooking. If you are following a gluten-free diet, look for a gluten-free box mix or a frozen crust and follow the package directions. If the crust needs longer than 10 to 12 minutes in the oven, prebake the crust partially, then add the cheese topping for the final 10 minutes.

½ cup ricotta cheese
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces pizza dough at room temperature
2 cups arugula leaves
2 to 3 slices prosciutto, cut into narrow strips (optional)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Place a pizza stone on an oven rack in the top third of the oven and preheat the oven to 500° for a full 30 minutes. In a small bowl, stir together the ricotta, Parmesan, and ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper, mixing well.

Lay a 12- to 14-inch-square sheet of parchment paper on a work surface. Place the dough on the parchment and roll or pat it into a 10- to 12-inch round about ⅛ inch thick. Using the back of a spoon, spread the cheese mixture evenly over the crust. Slide the pizza— parchment and all—onto the hot stone and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the crust is crisp and the topping is browned. If you do not have a baking stone, slide the pizza and parchment onto a rimless or inverted baking sheet and bake for 12 to 14 minutes (the crust will not be quite as crisp).

Just before the pizza is ready to come out of the oven, combine the arugula and the prosciutto in a bowl. Drizzle with the oil and lemon juice, add a pinch of salt and a generous grind of pepper, and toss to coat evenly. Remove the pizza from the oven and mound the salad on top. The heat from the pizza will wilt the greens. Slice and serve immediately.

Yield: one 10- to 12-inch pizza

Romanesco Summer Salad

Although vibrant lime green Romanesco (sometimes called broccoli Romanesco or Romanesco cauliflower) looks like the love child of cauliflower and broccoli, it is actually closer to cauliflower in terms of taste and how it is used. Its color is fantastic in this lively salad, though you can definitely use white cauliflower if that is all you can find. Cook the Romanesco just long enough to take away the raw bite—2 to 3 minutes tops. Normally, I would suggest plunging the florets into ice water to halt the cooking immediately, but introducing extra water here will mute the flavor and dilute the dressing. Instead, cook them fast and then spread them on a baking sheet so that they cool quickly.

1 cup water
1 medium Romanesco or regular cauliflower, cored and cut into bitesized florets (about 5 cups)
2 teaspoons whole-grain Dijon mustard
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
¾ teaspoon kosher salt (divided)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 red bell pepper, chopped
½ cup thinly sliced red onion
⅓ cup chopped fresh dill
3 tablespoons drained capers, coarsely Chopped

In a large pot, bring the water to a boil over high heat. (If you have a steamer insert, put it in the pot to hold the Romanesco. If you don’t have one, don’t worry about it.) Add the Romanesco, cover the pot, turn down the heat to medium, and steam for 2 to 3 minutes, until crisptender. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the Romanesco to a rimmed baking sheet or clean kitchen towel, spreading it in a single layer to cool.

In a small bowl, make the vinaigrette:  whisk together the mustard, lemon zest, lemon juice, and ¼ teaspoon of the salt.  Slowly add the oil, whisking constantly with a fork to form an emulsified vinaigrette.

Put the Romanesco in a serving bowl. Add the bell pepper, onion, dill, capers, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and vinaigrette and toss gently to combine. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. It will keep well for several hours. Just before serving, taste and add more salt if needed.

Smoky Kale Salad with Toasted Almonds and Egg

Over the past few years, raw kale salads have become one of my favorite foods, making it difficult to narrow down which recipes to share. One reason I like them so much is because they take well to all kinds of tasty additions, such as fruits (grapes, dates, figs, pomegranate seeds), nuts (pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, pecans), diced avocado, roasted bell pepper, and aged or salty cheese (goat, feta, Parmesan, pecorino). This salad is particularly straightforward: thinly sliced kale is combined with a Spanish-inspired dressing made from smoked paprika and sherry vinegar and then garnished with chopped egg and toasted almonds. Serve it alone as a simple lunch, or offer it as a side dish to skewers of garlicky grilled shrimp for supper. For an added, albeit expensive, Spanish touch, use Marcona almonds.

2 large eggs
Kosher salt
1 large bunch kale (12 to 14 ounces), center ribs and tough stems
removed, leaves finely shredded
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
½ teaspoon smoked paprika (Pimentón de la Vera)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
⅓ cup sliced almonds, toasted (see below, )

Put the eggs in a small saucepan with cold water to cover. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let stand for 10 minutes. Drain the eggs and then peel them. (You can cook the eggs a day ahead. Keep them covered in the refrigerator.) Chop the hard-cooked eggs into small pieces and toss them with a large pinch of salt.

Put the kale in a salad bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, paprika, ¼ teaspoon salt, and pepper. Add the oil and whisk to combine.

Drizzle the dressing over the kale; using your fingertips or tongs, toss together the kale and the dressing. Spend a few minutes thoroughly working the dressing into the leaves. (At this point, you can cover and refrigerate the salad for up to 4 hours before serving.) Add the almonds and the eggs and toss once more. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed, then serve.

Yield: 4 servings

Variation

To keep with the Spanish theme, shave some aged Manchego cheese over the salad. For a vegan version, omit the egg and add about ⅔ cup roasted red bell pepper strips (jarred is fine; pat them dry) and a few tablespoons of golden raisins along with the almonds.

Reprinted with permission from Brassicas: Cooking the World’s Healthiest Vegetables: Kale, Cauliflower, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts and More by Laura B. Russell (Ten Speed Press, 2014; $23). Photography by Sang An.

Toasted Nuts

In a small frying pan, toast the nuts over low-medium heat, stirring frequently, for 5 to 10 minutes, until golden brown and fragrant. Or spread them on a rimmed baking sheet and toast them in a 350° oven for 5 to 10 minutes. Either way, keep a close eye on the nuts to make sure they don’t burn. Toasted nuts will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for several days.