One Ingredient: Brassicas

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Photos by Michael Piazza / Styled by Catrine Kelty

If you’ve been to one of the farmers markets or farm stands lately, you’ll have noticed that the cruciferous vegetables have taken over the tables: We’re deep in Brassica season in New England, and we’re lucky it’s arrived. Our cool climate wreaks havoc on the tender fruits of summer, so we say goodbye to them just as cold-hearty veggies are reaching their peak. Early winter frosts sweeten the leaves, flowers, roots and buds of the Brassica family, making all that chard, kale, broccoli and cabbage oh-so much more delightful now than earlier in the season.

This cruciferous family has it all: extraordinary health benefits, extremely versatile preparations and a vast array of tastes and textures, full of vitamins and minerals (and better for you than most of what comes in a vitamin bottle these days). They’ve gotten a bad rap in the past (broccoli and Brussels sprouts, in particular, have been very unloved), but with the juicing trend and raw food/Paleo/vegan diets increasing in popularity, Brassicas are having a renaissance. And since they’re all in season now, and so closely related, you can make a whole meal of them, using leaves, roots and flowers in different ways in one dish; you’ll find they compliment one another beautifully.

For example: a kohlrabi, that strange-looking alien-shaped root that comes in deep, antioxidant-rich purple, or gorgeous celadon green, has leaves attached at the top when bought fresh from a local farmer. Don’t discard them! Shred the bulb to make fritters (see recipe below) and crisp up the greens in olive oil and salt to lay on top. Serving two preparations of the same vegetable on one plate, wasting next to nothing, is the veggie version of “nose-to-tail” eating—and can really pump up your nutrient quota for the day.

For another multiple-Brassica recipe, try your hand at one of my favorite vegetable salads—separate the florets of a head of cauliflower Romanesco (that stunner of a veg, a spinning swirl of fractals) and steam them until they are bright green but still quite firm. Split a small bunch of crisp, white, pearl-like Hakurei turnips down the middle, reserving the greens, and quick-steam them, too. Shred the raw greens finely, then toss the whole lot with a garlicky, grainy mustard vinaigrette, some late-season chives and a bunch of minced parsley. Serve in place of potato salad on a buffet, or add some cooked French lentils for a hearty lunch.

My favorite way to prepare Brussels sprouts showcases them on their own, and is bacon-free. It relies on a quick pan-sear, a short cooking time, and some sour-and-sweet accompaniments that keep them light and vegetarian-friendly. Get the freshest sprouts you can find, firm and heavy, and commit the recipe (printed below) to memory; they’ll be your go-to when bacon’s not on hand. They’re on my Thanksgiving table every year.

But it’s not just in home kitchens where Brassicas star in the winter—restaurant menus are full of them all season long, and not only because they’re healthy and abundant when other produce is not. Cruciferous vegetables, especially uber-fresh and locally-grown, are so delicious and worthy of the center of the plate. I reached out to five local chefs for their take on Brassicas, and their diverse offerings are printed below.

Need More Inspiration?

Try roasting some quartered, multi-colored radishes in olive oil with onion wedges and thyme; sprinkle with cider vinegar and coarse salt before serving.

Steam chard or collard leaves and fill with seasoned rice and chopped leftover lamb; roll up like cigars, then smother in a cumin-heavy tomato sauce, sprinkle with goat cheese and bake like enchiladas.

Try tossing a mix of white, orange, and violet cauliflower florets with shallots, oil, and salt, then roast in a hot oven until crispy; shower the whole pan-load with truffle oil, grated Parmigiano, and cracked pepper and serve with your steak instead of potatoes.

In the mood for a fry-up? Whisk together a light batter of seasoned flour and water, then tempura-fry broccoli florets and serve with a soy-garlic-ginger dipping sauce.

This story appeared in the Winter 2015 issue.