Sweeter in the Winter: A Farmers Market Guide to Brassicas

January 12, 2022

When you journey to the farmers market this winter, you will be rewarded with an abundance of flavorful, nutritious produce to nourish you through the colder months. You’ll find a bounty of brassicas, members of the cabbage family, such as Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, mustards, and kale. This broad family (Brassicaceae) includes 3,700 species of flowering plants, and their cross-shaped, four-petalled blossoms have earned them the name of cruciferous crops. 

Most brassicas can be found at the farmers market year round, but the best time to enjoy them is during the winter months. When temperatures drop, these crops boost their defenses to increase their frost tolerance, converting starches into sugar. This makes brassicas sweeter and more flavorful in the winter, so if you are usually not a veggie lover, this seasonal sweetness may pleasantly surprise you. 

Here’s a selection of some of the common cruciferous vegetables you’ll find at the farmers market, along with some tips on how to enjoy them. Packed with nutrients to boost your immune system, this hearty family of crops are worth getting acquainted with. Click on the links below to learn more about specific varieties, growers, and recipes.

Arugula: This leafy green is known for its peppery bite, which deepens with age and mellows when cooked. Its leaves are rich in vitamin C and calcium, and its flowers are edible, making a tasty garnish. At the farmers market, you can also find wild arugula with more spindly leaves, a deeper green color, and a flavor that is more peppery and nutty, with less bitterness. Arugula is a flavorful plant that is delicious in salads and sandwiches, and it makes a great pizza topping added at the end of baking.

Bok choy: The Chinese translation of bok choy means “white vegetable,” but it’s different varieties display other colors. Baby bok choy (which is smaller and more tender) has green leaves, and Shanghai bok choy (which is larger) has pale green and yellow leaves. Bok choy is a gradient of texture and flavor, from the crisp and subtle stalk to the more flavorful leafy ends. It is mildly sweet with a subtle peppery undertone, and it’s packed with vitamin C, B vitamins and calcium. Cook baby bok choy whole by steaming, boiling, or sautéing. Mature bok choy can be chopped or shredded to add into soups or stir-fries. Bok choy can also be used as an ingredient in Korean kimchi.

Broccoli: Translated from Italian as “little arms” or “little shoots,” broccoli resembles miniature trees with sturdy stalks and florets that balloon out in shape. Broccoli rivals kale in nutritional value, and is packed with vitamin C, iron, and antioxidants. You can find several varieties in the farmers market, including the sweeter Broccoli di Ciccio and Broccoli Rabe. Broccoli is eaten by many different cultures in many different ways, and steaming this vegetable is the best way to preserve its color, flavor, and nutrients.

Brussels sprouts: This vegetable gets its common name from its historic cultivation and popularity in Brussels, Belgium. Brussels sprouts resemble tiny cabbages, with dense-leaved bulb forms, and are believed to have been cultivated from the cabbage plant in the 18th century. They are a good source of essential nutrients including antioxidants, potassium, and iron. Brussels sprouts are delicious roasted, braised, or steamed. You can cut an “x” at the base to help them cook more thoroughly or saute the individual leaves. Although tasty on their own, Brussels sprouts make a great addition to stir-fries, noodles, and other dishes. At the farmers market, you can sometimes find whole stalks with the sprouts still attached, which keeps them fresher longer.

Cabbage: Cabbage is found in dense spheres of crisp leafy layers, usually weighing about one to two pounds. (As of 2012, the largest known cabbage weighed over 138 pounds!) Several different varieties of cabbage can be found at the farmers market, including green, purple, and white. Cabbage can be added to soups, eaten raw in a salad or slaw, but it is perhaps most loved when fermented, as in German sauerkraut or Korean kimchi. 

Cauliflower: Cauliflower is similar in appearance and taste to broccoli. There are four major groups of cauliflower species: Italian, Northwest European biennial, Northern European annuals, and Asian. And although the white cauliflower is the most recognizable of the bunch, this vegetable also comes in orange, green, and purple varieties: the orange cauliflower originated from a natural mutant plant in Canada, while the vibrant purple version is a result of an antioxidant that is also found in purple cabbage and red wine. Cauliflower’s “curds” (the edible florets) can be boiled, pickled, or eaten raw, though browning them through roasting is an excellent way to bring out their flavor.

Collard greens: This vegetable’s name comes from the word “colewort,” a medieval term to identify brassica crops that don’t come to a cabbage-like head. Collard’s blue-green leaves are broad and smooth in texture and have a bit of a bitter taste. Rich in manganese and vitamins A,C, and K, collard greens are commonly seen in traditional southern and Creole-style cooking, but are also enjoyed in Portugal and Brazilian stews and soups, where they are paired with fish and pork. Cook collard greens by sautéing, braising, or steaming them and try them with a side of black-eyed peas and a bowl of Cajun rice.

Kale: Kale is characterized by its longer, leaner central leaves that never form a head. Kale leaves can range in color from light green to dark violet-green, and they come in many varieties, including deep green Lacinato (aka dino kale, for its reptilian appearance), Red Russian, and curly. Well-known for its nutritional value, kale contains a wealth of calcium, iron, vitamin C, and more. It is a staple ingredient used around the world, appearing in traditional dishes from East African stews to Irish mashed potatoes. Kale can be eaten raw (for a punchier flavor), sauteed, or baked into crispy chips for a satiating snack. 

Kohlrabi: Also known as the cabbage turnip, the lesser-known kohlrabi gets its name from the German “kohl” for cabbage and the Latin “rapa” for turnip. The leaves taste like kale, collards, or cabbage with a milder, slightly sweeter flavor. Kohlrabi bulbs are more flavorful and tender when they are small and have a hint of radish and cucumber flavors as well. Both green and purple varieties can be found at the farmers market, and purple kohlrabi tends to pack a slightly spicier punch. An excellent source of vitamin C and potassium, kohlrabi can be sliced thinly for salads, steamed, boiled, added to soups, or roasted like you would a potato. 

Mustard greens: These flavorful, spicy greens come from the same plant that makes mustard seed (which is commonly ground to make the popular condiment). Mustard leaves can be flat, crumpled or lacy-edged, and can take on a number of colors. One of the most pungent and interesting of all the greens, as well as a very generous source of vitamin A, mustard greens are widely used in French, Chinese, and Southern U.S. cuisines. Mustard greens can be prepared similarly to spinach: steamed, sauteed, or simmered or eaten raw.

Romanesco: Also called Romanesco broccoli or Roman cauliflower, Romanesco’s bright chartreuse color and visually striking fractal (spiral-shaped) florets set it apart from those botanical relatives. It is also firmer than typical cauliflower and broccoli, with a nuttier flavor. Romanesco is a versatile addition to main dishes. You can prepare Romanesco like you would broccoli or cauliflower, and try it raw, steamed, sauteed, or baked with your favorite seasonings.

Turnip: Turnips can be eaten from top to bottom, or more fittingly, root to bulb. The small, tender varieties are grown for human consumption and both the bulb and leaves, which resemble mustard greens in flavor, can be enjoyed. The most common variety is white-skinned with a purple, red, or green blush on the top where the sun has hit. Smaller turnips tend to be sweeter and can be eaten raw, adding a nice crunch to salads, while larger turnips have a nuttier taste and are best when blanched or boiled.

Do you have a tried and trusted way to prepare your favorite brassicas? Share it with us on Twitter or Facebook.

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