Can You Dig It? With Daniel! “Let’s Hear it for Brassicas!”

Let’s Hear it for Brassicas!

We get it! Kale is trendy. But did you know that while kale is a hip “superfood” right now it’s really not alone. Kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and even rutabaga are all plant cousins and they all pack flavor and nutrients. Kale ain’t special, Brassicas are special.

Simply put Brassicas are a genus of plants within the mustard family and while they can grow all year round they shine in the colder months. Brassicas can form the base of your Fall and Winter gardens though with some planning they can thrive year-round.

Lacinato kale (center) consults with Cabbage (r) and Curly kale (l) about the upcoming frost.

I tend to think of Brassicas in five categories:

  1. Rooting:
    1. Turnips
    2. Rutabaga
  2. Leafing:
    1. Spinach
    2. Kale
    3. Collards
    4. Mustards
  3. Stemming:
    1. Kholrabi
  4. Flowering:
    1. Broccoli
    2. Cauliflower
  5. Budding:
    1. Cabbage
    2. Brussel sprouts

Benefits for Your Body:

Each plant within the Brassica family vary in nutrient makeup but generally speaking these dudes are packed with vitamins A, C, E, & K. Brassicas also tend to be low in saturated fats, cholesterol, and sugar which just makes them a great part of a regular diet.

Science is an ever-evolving field but here’s a quick breakdown of benefits from all those vitamins according to scientists in 2017.

Vitamin A:

  • Supports cell growth and differentiation and therefore immune function
  • Rich in antioxidants which fight inflammation and reduces cell and tissue damage
  • Essential for vision and protecting eye health

Vitamin C:

  • Aids growth and repair of body tissue (i.e. wound healing) & supports immune system
  • Improves absorption of iron (also present in Brassicas, two-for-one!)
  • Rich in antioxidants
  • Water soluble which means humans can’t store it which means we need some every day.

Vitamin E:

  • Rich in antioxidants & repairs damaged cells
  • Supports red blood cell production and promotes cardiovascular health
  • Helps body utilize vitamin K
  • Fat soluble

Vitamin K:

  • Helps produce blood-clotting proteins
  • Supports bone health by helping proteins bind calcium in bones and tissue
  • Fat soluble

Fiber:

  • Makes ya poop better

The take-home message here is simple: Brassicas are really good for you. You should integrate these suckers into your daily diet (much easier when they grow in your yard) and you shouldn’t be afraid of incorporating moderate fats like olive oil or butter into your recipes since this will help absorb fat soluble vitamins like E and K.

Last note on health – the longer the amount of time between harvesting and eating the fewer the nutrients left. Eating organic kale is good but if comes from California 3,000 miles away you’re losing a lot of nutrients in transit. Growing and harvesting your own veggies is the easiest way to not only eat healthier things but to get more nutrients too. Very under-appreciated part of growing what you eat.

Benefits for Your Garden:

This is a simple one: brassicas grow great in our region. Leafy greens are considered “pick-and-come-again” which means you can clip some kale for dinner and those dudettes will grow right back.

Fall/Winter:

Brassicas thrive in the cooler months. Begin planting out in the mid- to late-summer to allow them to grow as much as possible before daily sunlight reduces and their growth slows down.

In the winter after a dip below freezing, leafy greens will convert starches in their plant cells into sugars to act as a natural antifreeze. This in turns makes the leaves sweeter and reduces the bitterness often associated with greens.

Lots of Lacinato kale and rainbow chard from two springs ago.

Spring/Summer
I sow brassicas indoors beginning in mid-January. I continue to sow in 2-week successions until mid-March. Once you’re confident the last frost has passed begin transplanting those seedlings outdoors. The goal is to do this as early in the season as possible to give them a head start before temperatures get too high but it’s a good idea to sow in successions in case a late frost damages the seedlings you’ve already put out.

While brassicas can grow through the hot summer months a little planning is essential. In order to combat the heat companion plant brassicas with taller plants which will provide shade in the middle of the day. They’ll still want sunlight so be mindful not to crowd out leafy greens but you can minimize the damage a lot of sun will do by planning out crops that provide shade.

This is what I like to refer to as “growing too much kale.” You can always blanch and freeze bumper crops of leafy greens.

In addition to shade you’ll want to heavily mulch around brassicas in the summer to help maintain constant soil moisture. The large leaves common in brassicas tend to evaporate a lot of moisture so water early and often and rely on mulch.

Warning!
Brassicas can become susceptible to a host of pests such as caterpillars, cabbage worms, and white moths. The best defense is good offense. Rotate your crops every year so bugs can’t get a rhythm going. Additionally plant decoy plants or repellent crops nearby to deter bug idiots from eating your precious Vitamin A. (More about pest control in future posts.)

Benefits for Your Kitchen:

Aside from the joy of simply growing plants where there once were not comes the joy of eating the hell out of your garden. Most Brassicas are delicious raw but I also think they’re just really fun to cook too.

Here are some quick recipes I fall back on often in order of most to least healthy.

Raw Lacinato Kale Salad

  1. Destem and chiffonade raw kale leaves (here’s a hysterical video of Martha Stewart explaining how to chiffonade basil.)
  2. Massage with olive oil (don’t make jokes this actually breaks down the cell walls and softens the kale a ton.)
  3. Toss with crumbled feta, lemon juice or balsamic vinegar to taste.
  4. Salt and pepper
  5. Nom nom nom

(This recipe keeps for a while and peaks around day 3)

Stir-fried Broccoli

  1. Cut florets into similar-sized pieces, set aside.
  2. Slice off outermost layer of broccoli stems and cut interior to match broccoli florets.
  3. Heat up vegetable, peanut, or canola oil in a large pan or wok (don’t use olive oil here)
  4. Stir fry the broccoli allowing the broccoli to brown a little – the trick is to get a nice caramelization going all sides.
  5. If the broccoli is still a little undercooked after all sides are brown toss in a little water to steam.
  6. Remove broccoli from pan and add minced garlic and ginger to cook.
  7. Before those begin to brown add light soy sauce, oyster sauce, red pepper flakes or sambal, and some rice wine.
  8. Allow the sauce to reduce a little and add back the broccoli to coat evenly.
  9. Serve on rice, top with white sesame seeds.
  10. Nom nom nom

Pan Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Apple and Pear

  1. Half brussels sprouts and cube apples and pears
  2. Heat up olive oil and butter (half and half, it raises the smoke point of both, adds nuttiness, etc.)
  3. Pan roast the sprouts and cubes allowing to brown and caramelize on all sides.
  4. Add a splash apple cider vinegar to deglaze the pan and steam the brussels sprouts throughout.
  5. Add a little more butter, salt and pepper to taste
  6. Nom nom nom
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