Bravo for Brassicas
By Glenn I. Teves, UH County Extension Agent
In our local diet, we have a tendency to consume too much meat and rice, and not enough greens. Greens are the missing link to a healthy balanced diet, along with fruits, in meeting requirements of the food pyramid. Today, greens are finding their way into our diets through healthy drinks utilizing lettuce, kale, spinach and other greens.
The largest group of vegetable greens has a common ancestor that evolved into at least six rather distinct groups. Collectively known as crucifers, cabbages or mustards, and also by their Latin name, Brassicas, they include broccoli, cauliflower, collards, mustard greens, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, and a mix of Chinese mustards. Others include turnips and seed crops, including mustard and canola. Believed to have originated around India and dispersed in all directions of Asia by the movements of man, they evolved into many distinct forms. The name Crucifer, meaning “cross-bearing,” refers to the four petals of their flowers, forming a cross.
This group is a powerhouse of nutrients with cholesterol-lowering, detoxifying, and anti-inflammatory properties. They provide maximum nutritional and protective benefits, and are high in Vitamins A, B, C, and K. It’s important to note that cooking enhances the availability of nutrients and anti-oxidants from this plant family.
Heading types are the most popular in the U.S., such as broccoli, cauliflower and head cabbage. Innovations in plant breeding have recently produced cauliflower with yellow, orange, and purple heads selected for increased nutrient and antioxidant content. More recently, crosses between Brussels sprouts and head cabbage has produced open mini cabbages the size of a Brussels sprout called flower sprouts. Another innovation is a cross between kale and broccoli to create bro-kale.
A popular group in Hawaii is the Chinese mustards including pak choy, kai choy, won bok, kai laan and choy sum. Some are heading types, while others are eaten for their leaves and thick stems. Most of them flourish in cooler weather, but kai choy and pak choy are more heat-tolerant. Usually stir fried, added to soups and also pickled, many have found their way to Hawaii via immigrants from Japan, Korea, China, and more recently Southeast Asia. A part of our local cuisine for generations, a few are fairly new to our diet. If you visit Chinatown in Honolulu, and see what store workers are eating for lunch, it’s usually a bowl of rice, a piece of pork or chicken, and Chinese mustards.
Another group of leafy greens include collards, kale and mustard greens. This group found their way to the U.S. via Europe, Africa and the Mediterranean. Some were brought with African slaves to the southern states where they became an important part of their unique cuisine. Collards and mustard greens are relatively heat-tolerant, while most kale requires a cold snap to increase sweetness and remove bitterness. Two kale varieties are adapted to warmer climates including Lacinato or Dinosaur kale, and also Beira or Tronchuda kale, both Mediterranean types.
This group of greens should be an important part of our everyday diet and you will not find another vegetable group that is as high in vitamin A carotenoids, vitamin C, folic acid, and fiber as the cruciferous vegetables. This time of the year is when most of them will grow well on Molokai, and are worth growing.