The world of health-promoting vegetables is so rich and diverse, it’s maybe a mistake to pick favorites….but if I were to pick a favorite veggie family, I couldn’t go wrong with cruciferous! Named after their cross-shaped flowers and also referred to as the Brassica family, veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are among the true superfoods of the produce aisles. They’ve got high concentrations of the phytochemicals and antioxidants that can protect against cancer (especially lung, stomach, colon and rectal). They’re rich in minerals that help regulate metabolism. And they’re packed with an alphabet soup of vitamins that protect and enhance health generally. And all these chemical elements work in concert to naturally detoxify the body, neutralizing toxins and waste products. In other words, cruciferous veggies are the multi-taskers of the edible plant world!
But it wasn’t so long ago that the cruciferous veggies were looked at as the doormats of the vegetable world. As in, “broccoli is good for you, but who wants to eat it?” Now, most people I know have come to appreciate their earthy, subtle flavors but we could all still use more of them on our plates. So here is a list of cruciferous veggies that might not automatically come to mind when you’re planning your next meal, what’s specifically great about each one and a few tasty ideas on how serve a few of my favorite cruciferous ABC’s:
Arugula is, besides being a crucifereous veggie, a leafy green – which just happens to be my other type of favorite veggie (again, if I were going to pick favorites!). The leaves may be small and finely-shaped but there’s a lot going on here: high levels of vitamins like A, C and K; minerals like iron, copper, potassium and magnesium; and more cancer-fighting phytochemicals than science has names for. Gram for gram, this veggie ranks high on anyone’s list of healthiest foods.
How to serve? Also known as “rocket” or “roquette,” arugula has a wild, peppery taste that makes it a stand-out stand-alone as a salad or as a zesty addition to other greens like spinach or mustard greens, or even as a topping for cauliflower pizza crusts. And if you find yourself with too much for the plate or bowl, grind it up into a pesto and add it raw to a pasta dish.
Sometimes called “Chinese cabbage,” bok choy has been a mainstay of Asian cuisine for centuries and now is making a big, and deserved, splash in the West. It’s an excellent source of carotenoid and flavonoid phytochemicals and, besides the usual vitamin suspects, it’s high in vitamin K, great for bone health and fighting inflammation. Not to mention, it’s also packing omega 3 fatty acids, important for the health of most of our organs.
How to serve? You can do much more with bok choy than dropping into a stir-fry now and then. You can shred or chop the slightly sweet stems to add to a salad or wilt them for soups or broths. Feeling more creative? Use the leaves as a dumpling wrap and stuff with any of your favorite ingredients . Or give steamed spinach a rest as a veggie side and go instead with lightly sautéed bok choy. For a full-on entrée, season the bok choy with olive oil, garlic and spices and top with a favorite protein – fresh fish or organic, grass-fed meat or poultry.
They used to get no respect, probably because a lot of us grew up eating the overcooked, mushy version. And their distinctive taste can take a little getting used to. But cooked properly, they sing with strong veggie flavor and that sulfur-scent is your clue that powerful sulfur-and-nitrogen-containing glucosinolate compounds are at work protecting you from cancer. And they’re packed with fiber – great for digestion and lowering the so called “bad” cholesterol levels –- with a nice shot of protein as well.
How to serve? Pretty much any way you can think of! Toss them in salads, steam them, roast them, shred them into a slaw with cabbage, the list goes on – Brussels sprouts are incredibly versatile. The real trick is the shopping and preparation. Try to find youthful-looking sprouts, on the stalk if possible. And whatever you do, don’t overcook, you’re going for al dente here. Otherwise, you’ll get an unappetizing mush (which may bring up some childhood culinary memories!) with much of the nutrients cooked out.
Like the rest of the cruciferous crew, it’s loaded with phytochemical compounds that protect against cancer, as well as vitamins (the Bs, C, K) and minerals that help keep your metabolism, immunity and yes, your brain on track. It’s also a low-pesticide veggie, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen so you don’t have to go out of your way to buy organic.
How to serve? OK, the classics like cole slaw (without the mayo, please) and sauerkraut (ferment your own for an extra boost of immunity) are always winners but you can easily go further afield. Cabbage is one of the staples of Asian stir fry and if you’re looking for shot of pungent flavor, you can make or buy kim chi, the Korean condiment. But older Western traditions have always made a place for cabbage at the table too. Of course, with cabbage, cooking isn’t necessary. You can use the leaves as a wrap or chop up a wedge of cabbage and drizzle with oil and vinegar and you’ve got a super-crunchy, and very economical, salad in no time. For a crunchy snack, you can even bake cabbage leaves into a tasty chip and dig in, guilt-free.
Sure, it’s easy to take for granted but cauliflower is actually one of the most potent veggies in the “food as medicine” medicine chest. We’re talking phytonutrients, antioxidants and vitamins galore plus a goodly amount of the trace mineral manganese which can help boost metabolism, immunity and brain health. Not to mention plenty of fiber (yes, it’s chewy) and folate to promote good digestion. And like cabbage, it’s a low-pesticide veggie, per the EWG, so you need not buy organic.
How to serve? Run wild. Roast it, grill it, mash it, rice it, puree it, stir-fry it. Smother it in healthy, healing spices like curry, fennel, black pepper and turmeric, snack on it raw or serve it up old school, simply steamed.. Cauliflower is a do-anything, goes-with-anything veggie. How about a rich, but no-dairy, cauliflower soup, hot or cold, depending on the season? Or roasted or mashed cauliflower? It’s easy to use this veggie in place of traditional starchy ingredient. . Just about the only thing cauliflower doesn’t do well is dessert.
But we’re just getting started!
Your gut bacteria enjoys a mix of foods, and so do you, so don’t limit yourself to just a handful of your cruciferous friends – explore and enjoy the delicious cruciferous universe – including others like broccoli, broccoli rabe, collard greens, daikon, horseradish, kale, mustard greens, radish rutabaga and turnips. And most important,don’t forget to eat the stalks and stems too, for an extra fiber boost that your gut bacteria can feast and thrive on!