Issue: 2017-03-01, PHOTO: Kim Melton
Broccoli, one of the many artful forms taken by the genus Brassica
Potatoes, kale and cabbage is a pretty common answer to the question, “What can you grow up there, anyways?”
For those of us who get excited about growing, however, it is easy to go kind of crazy even within the parameters of a single vegetable family and the brassicas (also known as coles or crucifers for their cross-shaped flowers) are no exception.
Seed catalogs begin showing up in the mail this time of year and we get greedy for names and features – just like any enthusiast we sit around poring over descriptions of foliage, colour, days to maturity, flavour and, of course, size.
New names make us ooh, ancient lineages make us ahhh and debates over hybrid versus heirloom get heated.
Just how many brassicas are there? Well, more than I am willing to tackle – but to start off with the most familiar characters, let's investigate Brassica oleracea. I turned to the Encyclopedia of Life (eol.org) for the most recent in cole crop systematics. In this one species we have plants selected for for their flowers (broccoli, cauliflower and romanesco), their buds (brussels sprouts and cabbage), leaves (kale and collards) and stems (kohlrabi). How utterly bizarre that the same species has been coaxed into so many shapes and flavours… I suppose the same could be said for Canus domesticus – at least on the shape front. I cannot speak to the flavour.
Other familiar crucifers are Brassica napus, which encompasses both plants grown for their oily seeds – such as rape and canola – and those grown for their roots, like rutabagas and swedes. Brassica rapa gives us field mustard, chinese cabbages like bok choi and tat soi, napa cabbage, and turnips.
I have to admit that even my eyes can glaze over with too much categorization, so let's go back to the seed catalogues. They use more fun names to entice the gardener – Imperial! Orbit! Grepala! Galleon! If that doesn't get you excited, I don't know what will.
Brassicas are indeed very hardy, and are easy to store. I blanche my broccoli-types before putting them in ziplocs in the freezer, but kale and brussels I leave in the field and harvest with a hatchet once they freeze solid – but before they are buried in snow.
They hang in the porch or in insulated pails to ensure they stay that way in our oft-wonky fall temperatures for easy access – I would hazard that it is a rare supper in the winter that doesn't include one brassica or another. Cabbages of course store very well in a cool cellar, and can be easily fermented into that staple side, sauerkraut.
Which gets my vote for favourite? That isn't something I'm prepared to say – each has their own specialty. Quickly steamed romanesco with it's outer-space fractal spirals is up there, but I can also eat cabbage salad everyday. So instead I'll just make this a shout-out to all the Brassicas, and thank them for their variety and hardiness.
A Five-course Ode to Brassicas
Appetizer: Carrot sticks served with kale pesto
Soup: Creamed broccoli with blue cheese
Salad: Finely chopped cabbage, pickled kohlrabi, toasted pumpkin seeds and chopped apples
Side one: Roasted Brussels sprouts and cauliflower
Side two: Steamed Romanesco drizzled with garlic-infused oil
Main: Sautéed cabbage with ground moose overlain with mashed potatoes
Dessert… haven't quite figured out that part. Email me via email@example.com if you have suggestions!