cruciferous vegetables

A Noble Family of Vegetables

cabbage, brassica, cauliflower, cruciferous, heart health, cardiovascular, anthocyanin

At this time of year, it is a little trickier than in the summer to get your fill of fresh fruit and veg to cover your needs for vitamins, especially vitamin C, and minerals, such as magnesium. But only a little. Even in the winter and even in Northern Europe, there are fresh local crops that provide the nutrition we need.

Now in season are Brussels sprouts, white and red cabbage, kale and cauliflower, with purple sprouting broccoli joining them soon (in January). All of the above are members of the Brassica family and have similar properties, which I have written about last year in a blog post about the lovely little Brussels sprouts.

Cabbage and its relatives are not getting very much credit as a delicacy, because it reminds many of school dinners with overcooked, smelly and soggy cabbage. It doesn’t have to be that way. Cooked right, cabbage can be delicious.

So, how do you cook it right? To avoid the pungent smell and sogginess, cabbage is best cooked very briefly and with as little water as possible. Slice it into ribbons or shred in a food processor and then either stir-fry or steam. If you don’t have a steamer, use your widest lidded pan, pour just a little water in the bottom (it doesn’t have to, in fact shouldn’t cover the cabbage) and cook very quickly, just so that it is just soft.

Red cabbage – a pretty type of cabbage that is rich in anthocyanin – is lovely when cooked long and slowly. In my native Germany, it is popular to go with the traditional Christmas dinner of goose and potato dumplings. Traditionally, it is cooked with cloves, cinnamon and chopped apples. But sliced raw red cabbage also makes a beautiful addition to a winter salad, where it goes well with winter leaves such as lambs lettuce and sliced orange. Anthocyanin is a phytonutrient with antioxidant properties. It is the pigment that gives the cabbage its vibrant colour, the same as is found in blueberries, red grapes and beetroot. Anthocyanin fights free radicals and has anti-inflammatory effects, so red cabbage (and similar coloured fruit and veg) help protect us from heart disease. Apart from anthocyanin though red cabbage is also a good source of the vitamins and minerals we need, including vitamin C and K, calcium, magnesium, potassium. It also contains beta-carotenes, the precursor to vitamin A, including eye- and skin-healthy lutein and zeaxanthin.

Cabbage won’t break the bank, and white and red cabbage even keep really well for quite some time – unlike cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts, which should be eaten as soon as possible after purchase. You’ll find the best deals at your local farmers’ market or the green grocers, who also thankfully sell kale still on its stems. Supermarkets usually sell bagged, chopped kale, but it gets chopped with the stem on, which means that there will always be that hard bit in each bite.

Here some ideas on what to do with it:

  • Cut a white (or red) cabbage in half and then slice thinly. Steam the strips and then smother in (homemade) pesto for a super low-carb meal.
  • Strip kale leaves off the stem and then use either in a salad – massage the dressing in and then let it sit for a little while, the leaves will become much softer – or to make kale chips. Chop and add to pasta with some roasted squash and goat’s cheese; or add it to a hearty white bean soup.
  • Steam chopped kale or stir-fry, seasoned with a teaspoon of toasted sesame oil and tamari, sprinkle with toasted sesame. This works well with sliced white or red cabbage, too.
  • Sauerkraut is excellent food for gut health, but make sure that it is raw, not cooked. The kind you find in supermarkets – whether in jars or plastic bags – is usually cooked. Some health food shops sell raw sauerkraut, but if you want raw sauerkraut, i. e. with live bacteria, you’ll most likely have to make your own.

Note: Avoid raw cabbage, incl. coleslaw, if you have thyroid problems, particularly when iodine levels are low. Most members of the cabbage family contain goitrogens, naturally occurring compounds that interfere with the function of the thyroid. Cooking deactivates goitrogens, so cooked Brassica are fine. If your dietary iodine levels are low, you can top them up by consuming sea vegetables, seafood and iodised salt. 

Your most hated veg?

This week, our organic vegetable box finally contained something my husband and I have been eagerly waiting for: a bag of Brussels sprouts! Yes, the season has started, and we have no intention to wait until Christmas before tucking in. If anything, we were a little disappointed about the size of the bag: a bit small. I have always loved sprouts, but apparently not everyone shares that feeling. Much more so than in my home country, I feel that Brussels sprouts are the most hated and probably most misunderstood vegetable in Britain.*

Fresh Brussel sprouts full frame

Granted, if you boil sprouts into a greenish-grey mush that you then serve without any ‘enhancements’, then it probably isn’t all that appealing. But why would you? Cook them properly and enjoy!

First of all, shop for good ones: Your sprouts should be tight little green heads, with no yellow, brown or black leaves. As all brassicas (with the possible exception of white and red cabbage, which keeps quite well), Brussels sprouts are best eaten fresh. You’ll get the best price and the freshest sprouts from a farmers’ market or greengrocer’s. Cheaper still, and probably even fresher, are frozen sprouts, which have the added bonus that they are already cleaned and trimmed.

If you have bought unfrozen ones, first cut a thin slice off the stem and peel off the outer leaves, which removes most little blemishes. If you are going to cook the sprouts whole, cut the stem crosswise to ensure that they will cook evenly. If they vary greatly in size, cut the larger ones in half. Alternatively you could shred them on a mandolin or with the slicing blade of your food processor and stir-fry them or – dare I say it? – eat them raw in a salad.

It is important to cook them fast and furiously instead of boiling them to death. Either steam them in a steamer basket or put them into a large, wide pan to which you then add just a little water in order to steam-cook them with the lid on. Technically, you could just eat them like that, but there are so many more options:

  • toss with butter and a pinch of nutmeg
  • toss in garlic butter
  • serve with finely chopped, crispy fried bacon
  • serve with finely chopped toasted chestnuts
  • parboil, then toss with balsamic, olive oil, honey, salt and pepper and roast in the oven
  • mix raw shredded Brussels sprouts and finely chopped kale with your favourite dressing and some roasted walnuts and blue cheese
  • you can even – drumroll – make Brussels sprouts chips!

If you need even more inspiration, head over to my Pinterest Board, dedicated to the humble Brussels sprout.

But why would you even want to eat sprouts?

Well, if their delicious flavour isn’t a good enough reason, then here a few good health reasons – which, by the way, largely apply to the other brassicas as well. Those are the sprout’s bigger relatives such as: kale, spring greens, broccoli, cauliflower, romanesco, cavolo nero, tenderstem, savoy cabbage, pointed cabbage, white cabbage, red cabbage, kohlrabi, swede, turnip, pak choi and Swiss chard. Did I forget anyone?

Brussels sprouts are a great source of vitamin C and K, folic acid, and beta-carotene (the precursor for vitamin A) – so they are good at strengthening the immune system. Just what you need at this time of year. They also provide B6 (think PMS, hormonal imbalance, energy), B2, fibre, and potassium.

Sprouts (and their friends) help keeping cancer at bay: Brassicas contain a chemical compound called indole-3-carbinol and other indoles, which are particularly protective from hormonal cancers. Other phytonutrients (plant nutrients), most prominently sulforaphane, increases the activity of certain enzymes, which disarm free radicals. Sulforaphane inhibits uncontrolled cell growth (cancer), neutralises carcinogens and detoxifies environmental toxins, Brussels sprouts are particularly rich in sulforaphane, even in comparison to their bigger relatives. Sprouts also contain a chemical called sinigrin, the compound that is responsible for their strong smell. It encourages pre-cancerous cells to commit suicide – apoptosis – and is especially protective of colon cancer. Sprouts are also thought to protect DNA, and that to an even higher extent than other members of the cabbage family.

Cabbage – including sprouts – is a good source of the amino acid glutamine. Glutamine is the intestinal good bacteria’s favourite food and it protects the intestinal lining, thus helping to avoid or reverse intestinal permeability.

Note that all brassicas contain goitrogens, chemical compounds which can interfere with thyroid function. However, cooking inactivates them. If you have any thyroid problems, avoid raw cabbage. Goitrogens do not cause problems for people whose thyroid is healthy.


* It has always amused me, however, that the most hated vegetable has got to be on the plate for Christmas, the most celebrated meal of the year. Why ruin your festive meal with something you really, really don’t want to eat? I don’t get it.