Insights by Goldie: Winter: time to shift to crucifers!

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in December 2009

Many call them “brassicas” or “cole crops” (hence, “coleslaw”) and they include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, and kale and all their kin — including mustard greens and some roots. What unites this nutritious family botanically is their similarly patterned flowers — four petals in the form of a cross; hence, crucifer, a “cross-bearer.”

Crucifers probably are the largest, most varied clan of vegetables, a remarkably nutritious and diverse botanical family that has adapted and thrived in Europe and Asia for thousands of years. As in any extended family (botanical and otherwise), family members may have scant resemblance to one another.

The flavor and texture of crucifers are best grown and harvested in cool, moist climates. We in the Pacific Northwest enjoy them year-round but it makes sense to eat them more frequently during the sneezin’ season. Each one-cup serving packs a high “dose” of several powerful nutrients, helping us strengthen the immune support we need, especially during the cold months.

Crucifer research over three decades has unlocked details about the amazing array of beneficial cancer-fighting plant compounds they contain. It isn’t overstated to conclude that crucifers appear to provide great potential for protection against numerous cancers.

Many advisories recommend three to five one-cup servings or more a week. Read reports, reviews and more details at the nonprofit Web site of the World’s Healthiest Foods (

The Web site discusses how to maximize effectiveness of the protective compounds in crucifers (as well as similar compounds in garlic and onion family members): prior to eating raw or cooking, let cut pieces sit for five to 10 minutes to allow reaction with oxygen. That fully activates the protective substances. It’s that easy.

A final nutrient note: All crucifers are easy to love, either raw (including fermented, as in sauerkraut), lightly steamed, or quickly braised with a light touch. Avoid over-cooking, which dramatically destroys nutrients and is responsible for the bad reputation that cabbage and other crucifers sometimes have: “off” flavors or pungent odors from over-cooking.

The produce aisles at PCC always are an organic feast, beginning with the eyes. Note the variations in texture, shape and color.

Consider the delicate green leaves of watercress, or the tiny arrows that distinguish arugula leaves, or how bok choy’s delicate green tops fade to long white stalks. Compare them to two important root cousins, the purple-topped turnip and knobby, pale-cream rutabaga.

So different, yet all crucifers make great additions in variations of Super Simple Slaw, a delicious and nutrient-packed recipe. Bok choy also is excellent sliced into stir-fry — just don’t overcook it. I also love it sliced raw in slaw with tart apples or crunchy pears, and toasted walnuts.

The foot-long, white Japanese daikon radish traditionally is pickled. It’s also great raw — sliced or grated — or in a light soup with crucifer greens. Daikon adds a nice, light turnip flavor.

Look at the visually stunning patterns in the lime-green heads of Romanesco broccoli, which actually tastes more like cauliflower despite its classification. Enjoy raw florets of Romanesco with a favorite dip, or steamed slightly, perhaps dressed with fresh lime juice and hazelnut oil.

There are several cabbages, from the standard green to rippled Savoy (when available) and elongated Napa, a good replacement for iceberg lettuce in tacos or other wraps and sandwiches. (I use it as a foundation in slaw, with several additional crucifers.) But the nutritional knockout, truly “a head above others,” is the sweet, deep purple cabbage.

Curly green and red-tipped kales have won over many PCC shoppers but don’t be afraid of the dark, greenish-black Dino kale (as in dinosaur) with its bumpy leaves — properly known as Tuscan kale. It looks tough but Dino kale is very delicate and mild. Add thin slices to slaws or salads, or cook it lightly with oil, garlic and walnuts. I also toss a handful into a pot of cooking pasta for the final minute.

Don’t overlook mustard greens, such as mizuna, which has a spicy flavor and is wonderful braised with oil and garlic or shallots.

Finally, invite the unassuming, flat-leaved collards into your home if you haven’t already. Southerners boil them for an hour with onion, garlic, chipotle peppers, and maybe a ham hock. But they’re tasty plain, too, simply covered with cold water and brought to a boil for a minute until bright green.

To your health!

Also in this issue

Your co-op, December 2009

2009 fall member meeting

Sustainable Christmas trees

Which is more sustainable — a live-cut Christmas tree or an artificial tree that lasts many years? We’ve had both, not being sure of what’s more naughty or nice. So when we saw an editorial on this question in our regional agriculture paper, the Capital Press, we thought ’tis the season to share what it said.