Packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, brassicas are the powerhouses of the vegetable kingdom. With its long history, the Brassica group provides more types of vegetables than any other genus. Brassicas are members of the Brassicaceae or mustard family, formerly known as the Cruciferae or crucifer family, hence they are also called crucifers. This diverse grouping includes plants whose leaves, flowers, stems, and roots are cooked and eaten. Some of the most common brassicas include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, swedes, and turnips. Less familiar brassicas include broccoli raab, collards, cress, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, and bok choi.
Cabbage, one of the oldest of the brassica vegetables, and the ancestor of broccoli and cauliflower, has been used in cooking in Europe for more than 4,000 years, giving it an epic history. In fact, the Latin word brassica comes from the Celtic word bresic, meaning cabbage. The English word cabbage comes from the French caboche, meaning head. Cabbages are classified as either green or red, although color ranges from nearly white to reddish‐purple. Common green cabbage and red cabbage both have thick leaves and round, tightly‐wrapped heads. Napa cabbage, also called Chinese or celery cabbage, has a more delicate texture and flavour than common cabbage. The leaves of the Savoy cabbage are crinkled and thinner than common cabbage, and Savoy cabbage has a milder flavour. Cabbage, like other brassicas, is high in sulphur, which gives it a strong aroma while cooking. Red cabbage may turn a greyish blue when cooked in hard water. Often vinegar or another acid is used to counteract this tendency.
Broccoli, another popular member of the brassica clan, is believed to be a vegetable native to the eastern Mediterranean. Going back in history roccoli was cultivated and used in cooking by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and was described by Pliny in the first century A.D. Broccoli traveled from Italy to France, on to Britain, and from there to the Americas. Calabrese is a variety of broccoli which originated in the Italian province of Calabria. The word broccoli is Italian, from the Latin braccium, meaning arm or branch. Broccoli is a variant of the species Brassica oleracea, which also includes cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi. In addition to the usual green, broccoli may also be white or purple (which turns green when cooked). Since variants of the Brassica oleracea clan can easily crossbreed, there are a number of possible variants now available, including broccolini (a trademarked name which is a cross between broccoli and gai lan, or Chinese kale) and broccoflower (a broccoli‐cauliflower cross). Romanesco is a unique head of lime‐green pointed spiral clusters.
Brussels sprouts (Brassica oleracea Gemmifera) are tiny heads of cabbage that grow on tall stalks with leaves on top ‐ they look somewhat like miniature palm trees. They are named after Brussels, Belgium, where they were first discovered around 1750. While usually a green vegetable, there are also red varieties such as Falstaff. Smaller Brussels sprouts are tastier for cooking, and garden‐grown have a nuttier, sweeter taste than those from the supermarket.
Cauliflower originated in the Middle East. The name cauliflower comes from the Latin words caulus (cabbage) and floris (flower). Cauliflower comes in white, green, and purple heads. There is even a new orange variety called Citris. As a vegetable, cauliflower is difficult to grow and consequently more expensive to buy in the supermarket than most of its brassica cousins. Cauliflower, like broccoli, consists of unopened flower buds; the head of the cauliflower is called the curd. Packed with vitamins, one serving of cauliflower in cooking can supply a whole day’s worth of vitamin C.
More on the Brassica Family
Since the Brassica family is so large, more of its members are covered in articles under “Vegetables by Plant Part.” For example, swedes (rutabagas) and turnips are discussed with root vegetables. Collards, kale, mustard, and other leafy brassicas are included in the article on edible greens. Kohlrabi is covered in the article on stem vegetables. All have a long history of cultivation and cooking. The brassicas include a diverse array of colours, textures, and tastes, all packed with vitamins and disease‐fighting nutrients, as we’ll see in the third section in our series, “Vegetables and Health.” Adding brassicas to your garden, and to your grocery cart, will keep you and your family in the peak of health!