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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Embracing Brassica

I think the most helpful comment I ever heard about raising children wasn't written in any book or explained by any expert. A friend once said to me: "kids are loonies." And with no disrespect to the children in our lives, it's true. One day they love something, the next they throw a tantrum because they don't like it. They want to wear long sleeves in the summer and refuse to wear a coat in a freezing afternoon, they are emotionally attached to stinky blankies that they don't allow you to wash. They believe they are pirates, ballerinas, princesses, dinosaurs, and they dance in front of the TV when a fury monster tells them to. And it's all charming, until we get to the dinner table and what they devoured last week, they refuse to try today. They throw their food, they cry, they run away, and there you are chasing them with a spoon full of the super healthy food you've been preparing for the last 4 days while they were asleep. They much rather eat the contents of their nostrilss than the wonderful soup Jessica Seinfeld told you to serve.You make promises, threats, you spend 5 million dollars in super cute table mats, and plates, and ergonomic forks, you sing songs, your make up stories, you cry, give them stickers, break all your rules and turn into a juggling monkey. 
And now you think I'm going to give you the solution, right? Nope. Kids are loonies, remember?
However, it's tried and true that getting kids involved in the cooking process helps them get to eat the food. 
I've also found it successful to introduce kids to foods with fun names (trumpet mushrooms, graffiti eggplant, dinosaur kale, cuties), to talk about their shape, the sound they make when we chew them, their color or any interesting fact I find or know about such food. And some times, I mention certain nutritional qualities and the part of our bodies that they can help, protect or strengthen. I love telling them where a certain food originally came from, and since they have world map place mats, it's fun to find the country in the map. 
Another good habit I started a while back and which has been incredibly successful--especially with my youngest who eats NOTHING-- is always placing plain crunchy (raw or briefly cooked) vegetables cut into sticks or coins in a bowl in the center of the table. Somehow the fact that they are not on his own plate appeals to him and he eats them as finger food.
Lastly, I try to pick my battles, and one worth fighting for (or actually, offering) is the brassica one.       

The name might not ring a bell, but I'm sure (and truly hope) you've met many of the family members. They can be a bit stinky, they come in all sizes and many colors, some of them have a bite; and they all should be frequented way more than most of us would think. 
The brassica vegetables, also known as cruciferous or cabbages, are amazing sources of nutrients and phytochemicals. They are more than superfoods, they are ultrasuperduperfoods. They are a huge family and come in varieties of all sorts, as leaves, flowers, seeds, stems, roots and even spices. No more suspense, I present you, the brassica dynasty:
  • Arugula
  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli (florets, rappini, etc)
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage (all kinds, such as Napa, red, Savoy)
  • Cauliflower
  • Collard greens
  • Daikon radish
  • Horseradish
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Land cress
  • Mustard greens (and seeeds)
  • Radishes
  • Rutabaga
  • Shepherd's purse
  • Turnip
  • Watercress  
They are so healthy, that we should aim to eat 1 1/2 cups of brassica 4 to 5 times a week!!!

So...what's the big deal?   
Just for starters, there's no other group of vegetables with higher concentrations of vitamin A (as carotenoids), vitamin C, folic acid nor fiber. 

Their vitamin K--a potent antiinflammatory-- content (especially in kale and collard greens) is also notable, so is the amount of manganese.  

The abundance of antioxidants, including the above mentioned, plus plenty of other phytonutrients, and  the presence of a group of phytochemicals almost exclusive to brassica, called glucosinolates- turn these vegetables into invaluable allies against the risk of developing many kinds of CANCER. 

And that's not even all. Their protein content is not that shabby either. OK, they are not chicken, but 3 cups of brassica will cover 25% of our daily protein requirement. 
They are also decent sources of ALA omega-3s, which also support our body's anti-inflammatory response.
Lastly, for all of those detox juicing plan fans, brassica  help support our body's detoxification system. However, by eating the whole vegetable, you also get the benefits of its fiber content and the digestive support properties that fiber offers.

Summing it all up, due to their ANTIOXIDANT, ANTI-INFLAMMATORY and DETOXIFYING qualities, serving brassica vegetables is a battle we should all pick in disease prevention.

Cooking Tip:

I try to serve raw cruciferous vegetables as often as I can, and my children like them. The leafy ones are easy to turn into salads, so are radishes and Brussels sprouts when shaved or sliced finely.

Kohlrabi has been this winter's surprise, as my son has been happily munching on it cut into thin strips.

When cooking brassica, in order to take maximum advantage of their phytochemical content, it's best to allow them to sit after chopped or cut for about 10 minutes before cooking, to make the protective compounds become more available to our bodies.

It's also better to steam them for a couple of minutes (baby bok choy steamed for 2 minutes is a local favorite in our household) or to cook them at low temperature into a soup; rather than cooking them for a long time over a very hot flame or in a very hot oven. However, I do love roasted cauliflower with its golden brown spots!  
Some people dislike the bitter taste of some vegetables of the brassica family, in those cases, the milder ones (cabbages, mainly) are recommended, but I also suggest pairing them with flavorful dressings, sweeter fruits or vegetables and roasted nuts or seeds. Soups are good alternatives as well, because the heat is not so high. The addition of umami flavors such as miso, soy sauce, nutritional yeast, etc, is a good thing to keep in mind as well.

Last night I went to my friend Kim Kushner's new cookbook The Modern Menu's presentation. This amazing chef, instructor and hostess, who proclaims "not to be a healthy chef," is actually wrong. She is a healthy chef and her book, a 5-year-long labor of love, is to attest for that. 

By balancing flavors of her Moroccan heritage, a childhood in Montreal, life in New York City and influences that span from the Mediterranean to the Far East, The Modern Menu is full of healthy food for the body and for the spirit. Kim just makes you feel at ease no matter what. Did I mention beautiful photography by Andrew Zuckerman? Her food is simple, but very well thought of, her flavors comforting but interesting at the same time. There's no fuzz, just straightforwardness, deliciousness and lots of plant-based recipes. She makes you feel good about the food you're cooking and eating. To me, that's being a healthy chef!
Here's a brassica recipe from The Modern Menu. If you wanted to make it kosher for Pesach, just substitute the sunflower seeds (which are kitnyot) for toasted almonds or other nuts, use honey instead of maple syrup, if you can't find one that is kosher certified for Passover.

Recipe by Kim Kushner from The Modern Menu Gefen Publishing House
  • 4 bulbs kohlrabi
  • 3 cups shredded green cabbage
  • 1/3 cup dried cherries
  • 1/4 cup salted roasted sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh dill
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Using a sharp knife, remove the long stems and greens from the kohlrabi. Using a peeler, trim away the thick green skin until you reach the light green to white  part that is free of tough fibers. Shred on the medium holes of a box grater or in a food processor fitted with the shredder disk.

Combine kohlrabi, cabbage, cherries, sunflower seeds, and dill in a larger serving bowl. In a small jar with a tight fitting lid, combine the olive oil, maple syrup, lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper. Shake to thoroughly combine. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to coat well. Let sit for about 20 minutes before serving.
Photo taken from the actual  book

Serves 6 to 8.