Embracing Brassica

Kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower have caught on. Can cabbage be far behind?

By Pam George

At the innovative Eclipse Bistro in Wilmington, menu changes are expected. But when chefs removed the Brussels sprouts and cauliflower dish, customers pushed back. 

“It’s been a staple on Eclipse Bistro’s menu for 15 years,” says owner Carl Georigi. “We tried taking it off once — momentarily — and it was an all-out riot, so we immediately put it back on.”

It’s hard to believe that sprouts could cause such a stir. But these emerald-green orbs come with prosciutto, Marcona almonds and a smoked paprika-honey vinaigrette. The Little Italy eatery is in good company. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a full-service restaurant without a Brussels sprouts dish.

But as kids, most baby boomers viewed these sprouts and their kin with distaste. “My dad always grew kale in his garden and talked about how healthy it was,” says Carole Dandolos of Wilmington. “Of course, as a kid I hated it and said it was just a garnish. Clearly, he was ahead of his time.”

The story of how these veggies went from humble to haute cuisine is rooted in health studies, cooking techniques and new varietals.

21st-Century Super Foods

Brussels sprouts and kale are part of the brassica family, a genus of plants descended from wild mustard. Over time, people began selectively taking seeds from the plants that produced desirable characteristics, such as large leaves (kale) or large stems (Chinese broccoli).

These farmers and home gardeners cultivated the plants for taste and appearance. But in more modern times, researchers have found that the brassica family promotes gut health and reduces inflammation. They’re full of minerals, fiber and vitamins, including vitamins A, C and K. 

And there’s more. “There are compounds like diindolylmethane that protect against reproductive cancers, or sulforaphane, which can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, cancer and other health concerns,” says Amber Pawula-Macin, a licensed nutritionist with Nutrition Hive in Wilmington. “There are few foods that benefit the body in so many different areas of our overall health.”

Health-conscious consumers are showing their appreciation at checkout. Sales of fresh brassica products have steadily increased over the years, says Paula Janssen of Janssen’s Market in Greenville.

On The Scent

Regardless of the benefits, people rarely eat foods that smell bad, and the Brassica family has a stinky reputation. The culprits are sulfur compounds that can emit the stench of rotting flower stalks. Overcooking intensifies the odor, and boiling broccoli, cabbage and sprouts was the standard cooking method for generations. 

“I still remember that boiled smell from my childhood,” maintains Rob Pfeiffer of Wilmington.

Lisa Scolaro, a chef with HoneyBee Seasonal Kitchen & Market in Trolley Square, maintains that the freshest produce is less likely to smell. But even kids with access to the freshest brassica can turn up their noses. These super-tasters have sensitive palates and a heightened sensitivity to smell. When enzymes from brassica meet the saliva in some people’s mouths, the marriage produces an unpleasant odor that kids don’t tolerate as well as adults. 

Shawn Marshall, Janssen’s executive chef, suggests roasting and adding parmesan or other shredded cheese toward the end. It will change the aroma and soften the flavor, he says. 

Hold the Water

Roasting is now a preferred cooking method for sprouts and cauliflower. “It’s easy, and it brings out the sweeter flavors,” says Marshall.

Pawula-Macin, a former chef, agrees. While the vegetables roast, water evaporates, allowing the natural sugars to concentrate, she explains. Caramelized sugars reduce any bitterness and intensify the sweetness. 

If you’re feeling confident, you can fry your sprouts. For instance, at Le Cavalier in Wilmington, cleaned and scored sprouts are deep-fried until crispy yet still firm on the inside.

“We drain the oil on paper towels, then quickly toss and coat them with a sweet-and-sour dressing made with honey, white wine vinegar and salt,” says Tyler Akin, the executive chef and an owner.

At home, he coats a room temperature pan with vegetable oil and covers the bottom of the pan with halved Brussels sprouts, cut-side down. “Turn the pan heat to the highest setting and cook until very dark — until they almost appear burned,” Akin says. “Salt the Brussels liberally and toss to ensure they are seasoned evenly. You can use them in this state as a side, in salads or even in a sandwich with the Brussels taking the place of what might ordinarily be meat.” 

Sprouts can take some heat in more ways than one. Two Stones Pub in Wilmington bathes fried sprouts with sesame-soy dressing and sriracha aioli. 

But you don’t need to cook your Brussels sprouts. For example, Harry’s Savoy Grill offers a Brussels sprouts salad with toasted almonds, tomato, sieved egg and lemon vinaigrette. Cauliflower and broccoli are also good raw.

It’s not unusual to find smoked pork in the mix. “The saltiness and umami of bacon add depth of flavor,” Marshall says. And the smoky fat is a counterpoint to any mustardy bite, Scolaro adds. For example, at Torbert Street Social in downtown Wilmington, flash-fried sprouts are dressed with garlic, bacon, balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese.

The Next Big Brassica

While Brussels sprouts are the star, broccoli was among the first of the brassica to get  healthy kudos. That is still the case. “If I am trying to sell tofu, a peanut noodle bowl or sausage — if I put broccoli in it, it draws people in,” Scolaro says.

Kale is a newer addition to the culinary party. Credit Goop guru Gwyneth Paltrow, who made kale chips on the Ellen show in 2011. By mid-2014, kale overtook spinach as America’s favorite cooked green, according to Google data. 

At HoneyBee, Scolaro uses kale in smoothies, grain bowls, salads and chips. Raw, juiced or steamed — kale still offers health benefits. That said, the Google search numbers have dipped. Perhaps that’s because kale is naturally tough and chewy — it takes work to make it palatable. Or, maybe it’s because people are more accustomed to serving it at home.

Cauliflower, meanwhile, has become the darling of the Whole 30, paleo, gluten-free and vegan crowd. Its mild taste makes it a versatile substitute. “It brings texture — a mouthfeel,” Scolaro says. 

You can slice it into steak-like portions and rice it for a mashed potato substitute. Plus, shoppers are no longer limited to snowy heads. Cauliflower is available in hues of green, purple and orange. 

To be sure, supermarkets are now full of brassica variations, such as curly-leaf kale and Lacinato varieties, often called Tuscan kale. Scolaro favors Romanesco broccoli or Roman cauliflower, the edible flower bud of Brassica oleracea. The vegetable, which looks like a chartreuse “alien Christmas tree,” is a conversation starter on a vegetable tray, she notes.

Many cultivars have a milder flavor but can cost more than the traditional, Marshall says. That’s likely why some of the more colorful options have yet to make it onto restaurant menus. 

Admittedly, some brassica members are a hard sell. For instance, many consumers still limit radishes to salads or use them as garnishes. However, you can roast them with garlic. Cabbage rarely gets praise after St. Patrick’s Day, and turnips are turnoffs for many people. 

Fans hope that more people embrace uncommon varieties and eat even more of the familiar. “With all the benefits that brassicas offer, it would be great for more people to find that they truly love them,” Pawula-Macin says.

Akin agrees. The benefits go beyond vitamins and minerals. “Eating more vegetables is better for our environment and health — meats are super-expensive right now — and there’s been a proliferation of platforms giving folks access to interesting recipes,” he says. 

It’s never been easier to become a brassica buff.