The Many Faces of Brassica oleracea
Our story begins on the windswept, limy cliffs along the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, perhaps 4000 years ago. Here grew a leafy herbaceous plant with succulent, edible leaves that modern botanists call Brassica oleracea. In this part of the world plants were able to grow throughout the year, thereby providing an important source of vitamins and trace elements during even the winter months. It thus became an important part of the diet of the people living by these shores. Eventually its seeds were collected and plants were grown within human settlements, where it was spread across Eurasia.
This barely-domesticated plant looked very close to what we now know as ‘kale.’ The name used to identify this crop descends far back into Eurasian civilization, with ‘kaulis’ being the likely term used in the hypothesized Proto Indo-European language. From this root springs varied names across the ancient world: The Hindi called them ‘kopi’; the Tartars ‘kappes’; the Greeks ‘kaulion’; the Romans ‘coles’; the Anglo-Saxons ‘colewyrts’. From these come the German ‘kohl’, the Norwegian ‘kaal’, the Spanish ‘col’, the Scottish Gaelic ‘kale’ and the English ‘collards’.
Sometime before 3000 years ago, people began selecting for varying and different traits from within this single plant, giving rise to a shocking variety of vegetables. It is now hard to imagine that kale and collard greens, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts all originated from the same wild plant. Within each, a different part was bred to be the focus for consumption.
We start with ‘kale’ and ‘collards’ (known botanically as the Acephala Group) which represents those crops most closely related to the primeval wild plant: in these, selection was for the quantity, size, color, and appearance of the leaves. Later (perhaps 2000 years ago), farmers in the Mediterranean began selecting for plants with larger and more dense flower heads, with thicker and more succulent stems supporting those flowers. The varieties in which the flower heads and stems remained green became ‘broccoli’ (the Italica Group) while those which were selected to be light-green or white became ‘romanesco broccoli’ or ‘cauliflower’ (the Botrytis Group). At this same time, plant breeders in China and Southeast Asia independently bred a plant similar to broccoli but with larger leaves, a somewhat smaller flower head, and a slightly more bitter flavor (the Alboglabra Group). These are called ‘kai-lan’ or ‘Chinese broccoli’. While broccoli initially did not stray far from its Mediterranean roots, cauliflower rapidly spread east across the near east to India, where it became an important part of the regional diet. Within the last few decades modern plant breeders have further selected for a number of additional cauliflower colors including orange and purple.
Northern European farmers continued developing this plant. Around 1000 years ago, during the Dark Ages, plant breeders began selecting for kales with shorter and shorter distances between leaves along the stem. This eventually gave rise to cabbages (the Capitata Group); in fact ‘cabbage’ is derived from ‘caboce’, the Old French word for ‘head’. The crinkly-leaved Savoy cabbage was developed by German gardeners only 300 years ago. During the late Middle Ages, about 600 years ago, another group of Northern European farmers began selecting for kales with thicker stems to create a ‘kale turnip’. This became kohlrabi (the Gongylodes Group) from the German ‘kohl’ (kale) and ‘rabi’ (turnip). It rapidly spread east across Eurasia to Siberia and India. At this same time, plant breeders in the Low Countries began selecting for tall kales that produced small leafy heads on the axillary buds above each leaf. These became Brussels sprouts (the Gemmifera Group).
The story does not quite end here. Brassica rapa is a closely related species which was initially domesticated in Europe around 4000 years ago and rapidly spread east into India, China, and Japan. It was selected for various traits including oil rich seeds, numerous fleshy leaves (the eastern ‘cabbages’ and ‘mustards’ which include mizuna, bok choy, and napa cabbage), thick tuberous roots (turnips), and fleshy leaves and flower stalks (broccoli rabe). This species can hybridize with Brassica oleracea, creating a new species (Brassica napus) which has a different number of chromosomes (n = 19) from its two parents (Brassica oleracea, n = 9; Brassica rapa, n = 10). This new species was then similarly selected for oil rich seeds (rapeseed, which is known in North America as the less violent-sounding ‘canola’), tuberous roots (rutabaga / swedes), or dense leaf growth (Siberian kale).
Rutabaga-Carrot Soup (Juurikasviksiakeitto)
This thick pureed vegetable soup – adapted from a recipe in the 1990 Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant – is a Finnish specialty. We love the sunny flavors generated from the rutabaga, carrots, orange juice and fresh ginger.
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 cups rutabaga, peeled and chopped
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup stock
1 teaspoon fresh ginger paste
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 cups orange juice
salt and freshly gound black pepper to taste
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium. Add in the onion and sauté for 5-7 minutes until translucent. Add in the carrots, rutabaga, and salt and sauté for another 10-15 minutes. Add in the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover the pan, and cook for 20-30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Add in the ginger, nutmeg and orange juice and puree until smooth and thick. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.
Rutabaga Casserole (Länttulaatikko)
The Finns love rutabaga, partly because it grows so well in their far northern climate. The following recipe is loosely adapted from one presented in the 1968 Scandinavian volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series (ISBN 978-0809400317). While the original makes a baked mashed rutabaga dish, we decided to leave them cubed as we liked the contrast between the yellow rutabaga chunks and the white sauce. But feel free to mash the cooked rutabaga if you want your Länttulaatikko to be fully authentic.
8 cups rutabaga, peeled and cut into ¼” dice
1 tablespoon salt, in all
¼ cup chevre
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
¼ cup soft bread crumbs
¼ cup softened butter
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Place rutabagas into a 6 quart pan and cover with water. Add in a teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until the rutabagas are tender, about 10-15 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water.
In another bowl, whisk together the chevre, eggs and nutmeg. Combine with the bread crumbs, parboiled rutabaga, and butter.
Place into a buttered casserole and bake for an hour or until the top is browned.
One of the hallmarks of the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula cuisine are pasties, the sturdy meat and vegetable filled savory pastry that immigrated to the region with Cornish miners. We’ve always liked our pasties with much more vegetable than meat, and here we’ve simply eliminated the meat altogether. The result is very tasty and we doubt you’ll feel unfulfilled. The pasties hold very well in the refrigerator or freezer, and reheated in the oven we think they taste even better. You may want to consider doubling or tripling the recipe as they will be quickly eaten. Our recipe is loosely based on one presented in the 1990 Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant.
3 cups white flour
1 teaspoons salt
1 cup cold butter, cut into ½” cubes
3 tablespoons ice water
Place flour in a mixing bowl and sprinkle the salt over the top. Cut the butter cubes into the flour using your fingers until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Sprinkle the water over the top and mix with a mixing spoon until the ingredients gather up and form a dough. Knead a few times and then gather into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.
1 cup celery, coarsely chopped
1 cup rutabaga, peeled and cut into ½” dice
¾ cup leek, cleaned and chopped
1½ cup carrots, cut into ½” dice
2 cups potatoes, cleaned and cut into ¾” dice
2 cups grated cheese (such as sharp cheddar, gruyere, or taleggio)
1/8 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Mix together all of the filling ingredients in a large bowl.
Preheat oven to 375° F.
Divide dough into 8 equal pieces. Roll each into a 7” circle. Place ¼ cup of filling on the half of the dough round facing towards you. Press the filling into the dough and fold the uncovered half over the top of the filling. Roll up the edges and crimp. Cut 2-3 small slits into the top to allow steam to escape, and place on a large baking pan. Repeat until all eight pasties have been formed.
Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350° F and continue baking for another 20-30 minutes until the pasties are golden-brown. Remove from oven and lest rest at least 5 minutes before serving.
You'll likely have unused filling. We turned this into a simple vegetarian shepherd's pie by placing the left-over raw filling into a buttered casserole, and topped it with mashed potatoes. We then baked the pie for 40-45 minutes in a 350° F oven until the top was golden brown.
Root Vegetable Ragout
This excellent vegan winter root vegetable ragout is adapted from a recipe presented in Georgeanne Brennan’s 1995 France: The Vegetarian Table (ISBN 978-0811804745). While her original recipe was flavored to suggest a North African couscous, we have tried to pull it back into a more classic Provencal style through use of Herbs de Provence and dried tomatoes. We are also quite fond of this recipe as it provides a glimpse of the type of vegetable cooking that was common in Europe prior to the advent of New World potatoes; in fact everything in this recipe – save for the dried tomatoes – would have been present in Provence back to at least the Middle Ages.
2 pounds parsnips, washed and cut into 2” chunks
1 pound turnips, washed and quartered
1 pound rutabaga, washed and cut into eights
1 pound carrots, washed and cut into 2” lengths
¼ cup olive oil, in all
2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Herbs de Provence
½ cup dry white wine
2 cups stock
1 cup water
4 bay leaves
½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, cut into ½” strips
1 pound chard leaves, washed, destemmed, and cut into 1/2” wide ribbons
Parboil shallots for 5 minutes in boiling water. Drain and peel away the skin from the top downward. Cut off the skin by cutting through the root plate at the bottom. Be sure to leave some of this place as otherwise the shallots will fall apart upon cooking. Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a heavy skillet and saute the peeled shallots over medium-high heat for 10-15 minutes until their outsides have caramelized. Remove from heat and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350° F.
In a large, heat-proof casserole warm remaining olive oil over medium heat. When hot add in the parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, and carrots and saute for until well coated in the oil and somewhat softened, about 10 minutes.
Mix together the flour, salt, pepper, and Herbes de Provence and sprinkle over the vegetables. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the flour begins to stick and turn brown on the casserole bottom. Add the wine and deglaze the casserole. After a minute or two add in the stock, water, bay leaves, dry tomato strips, half of the chard, and reserved carmelized shallots. Cover casserole and bake until the vegetables are tender, about 45 minutes. Remove cover, stir in the remaining chard, and continue baking for another to reduce the sauce and brown the vegetables slightly. Serve warm, preferably with a fresh, crusty baguette..