Late-coming brassicas are worth the wait

Thursday, March 23, 2017 11:25 AM
Vic Vanik, co-owner of Four Seasons Greenhouse and Nursery in Dolores, looks at his cabbage grown indoors at the facility.
Cabbage grown at Four Seasons Greenhouse & Nursery in Dolores.

We all know that beauty is merely skin-deep, shaped by a culture obsessed with youth, vigor, and perennial sex appeal. Societal expectations, aided and abetted by aggressive and relentless advertising, begin before we ever draw our first breath.

Layer upon layer of defined convention piles up on us while we learn to live with our ever-changing physical self. We counter with gentle reminders to ourselves that true beauty is something that originates within a person and radiates outward to bless all who come into contact with it. Garbage.

In fact, skin-deep beauty holds huge personal sway over every one of us, regardless of our outward professions to the contrary. None of us is immune to the powerful influences, seen and unseen, that press in every moment of every day of our lives to shape and influence our perception of loveliness. Yes, we may learn to see through the veneer of appearance and judge for ourselves the essence of another person, but we first have to wade through the muck of preformed opinions to get there.

Vegetables are no exception. Who doesn’t love the sleek sexy tomato, its thin slippery skin practically bursting to reveal its ripe flesh? Or the crisp tendrils of spring greens snuggling amongst baby peas tucked inside their adorable pods? Eager asparagus spears announce themselves without shame, and zucchini and cucumbers we all know, are better picked young and firm before they turn thick-skinned, pulpy or seedy. Let’s not even get started on the fruits. Yes indeed, spring vegetables are beguiling.

Enter the brassica and squash families. You know the brassicas: cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts. Lumpy and unlovely, these latecomers are the country cousins who come to visit once a year and who nobody knows quite what to do with. Odiferous and an unattractive shade of olive drab when overcooked, they have been the bane of children and presidents (think: Ronald Reagan). The truth, however, is that it is the cook, not the vegetable, that contributes to brassica’s tarnished reputation. Indeed, it’s time for a beauty makeover for these misunderstood vegetables.

I went in search of some cabbages and broccoli at the Cortez Farmers Market recently and discovered that the early bird has her advantage over the night owl. Several vendors had brassicas for sale, but their dwindling supply was bought out before 9 a.m.

Numerous stands, however, offered a fine selection of produce that survives, if not prospers, in colder nighttime temperatures. Carrots, beets, onions, parsnips, some potatoes — new and cured – and tomatoes, and mountains of squash are all still available. Acorn, delicata, yellow acorn, Hubbard, and of course, pumpkins were laid out on tables like gigantic orange marbles.

Cortez Farmers Market manager Theresa Titone says it’s been another outstanding year for customers and vendors.

The good news is that on Saturday, Nov. 5 at the Four Seasons Greenhouse and Nursery, the winter market picks up where the summer market ended. Vic Vanik has row upon row of broccoli and cabbages ready for sale along with an array of greens and tomatoes, cucumbers and kohlrabi. So set aside your preconceived notions about brassicas, the country cousins to the more photogenic vegetables – and invite them to your table this fall. Here are a few tips for choosing, storing, and preparing your soon-to-become favorite brassica.

BroccoliChoosing: Two things to remember when selecting broccoli: first, the flowered heads are meant to be immature, which means don’t buy it if it’s showing any signs of little yellow flowers. Flowering signals the beginning of decay. Second, check the stalk by trying to pierce it with your thumbnail. If you can’t, chances are the broccoli was picked late and the stalks will be woody and inedible.

Storing: Broccoli has a short shelf life and spoils quickly. Ideally, it should be eaten the same day it is purchased. Fortunately, that is possible because of its availability at the Winter Market. If you need to store it briefly, wrap it in plastic and keep it in the crisper drawer.

Preparing: Somewhere, somehow I used to believe that broccoli had to be steamed until limp and lifeless. My family and I ate it dutifully but there was little savor. That changed when I pulled way back on the cooking time and merely blanched the vegetable, retaining its bright happy greenness. Served either with a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon or tossed in light vinaigrette, the vegetable springs to life and always reminds me of eating tiny trees.

Conversely, try roasting broccoli in a hot (450) oven on a sheet that has been pre-heated in the oven with oil. Slice the broccoli spears lengthwise to maximize surface contact with the hot oil. Roast 3-5 minutes on one side, flip and roast for another 5 minutes or so until just starting to blacken. Dress with a splash of tamari. Yum.

CabbageChoosing: Look for tightly formed heads with thick, slightly waxy outer leaves. When you squeeze it, there should be just a little give. Avoid heads with yellowing leaves or dried out stems.

Storing: Both cabbages and Brussels sprouts have long shelf lives. Store in plastic bags in the crisper drawer.

Preparing: One of the great advantages of using cabbage in place of greens is that, unlike greens, it actually improves in flavor and texture by sitting overnight. (The famed Korean kimchee made from fermented cabbage, gets buried underground in clay pots for months at a time!) Try it atop tacos for an extra crunch instead of lackluster iceberg. Marinated in a little oil and vinegar, you have the base for coleslaw that can be dressed up anyway you like. I prefer my coleslaw with sliced almonds, dried cranberries, and celery seed.

Brussels sproutsChoosing: Since Brussels sprouts are miniature cabbages, the same rules apply.

Storing: Same as cabbage.

Preparing: If you’re like most people, you begin by slicing your Brussels sprouts in half. I tried a recipe recently that had me shred them on a cheese grater (who would have thought?), simmer them with a little water in a cast iron skillet until tender, and then sprinkle with sea salt and a squeeze of fresh lime. Fast, easy. Delicious.