What's a brassica?
The exciting brassica genus encompasses a huge range of edible treats: from roots and stems to seeds and leaves. Not to mention a seemingly disparate group including radishes, cavolo nero and mustard seeds. It’s very easy for me to get distracted thinking of them all but, for now, let’s focus on the flowers of the family – the most common being broccoli and cauliflower. We also have the hard-to-find purple Sicilian broccoli; and there’s romanesco, which is sometimes called roman cauliflower and is a curious lime green alien-like vegetable (which interestingly enough is an example of a naturally occurring fractal). Let’s also sneak in cime di rapa as, despite its stalk-like appearance, it's often sold with small flowering heads attached.
When to eat
Late winter is when the flowers truly flourish, but heading into spring, when the last of the winter plants have gone to seed, you can also get kale and cavolo flowers. I first discovered them while visiting my friend Phil at his organic farm in the Southern Highlands. On a freezing misty day, despite the rain and mud, we traipsed around discovering all sorts of things, including a patch of cavolo nero sprouting beautiful yellow flowers. I’d never used them before and Phil said it wasn’t something he generally sold; he also said, “They taste like broccolini, but with more flavour”. Lucky for me, I got to use them. My advice if you want to find them? Make friends with a farmer.
They’re all hearty vegetables with distinctively strong, pungent, spicy, peppery – sometimes bitter – characters. These are flavours I love to use.
Who does brassica best?
Brassica flowers are found in countless cuisines, from Britain’s daggy yet delicious cauliflower and cheese to aloo gobi – a curry found in India, Nepal and Pakistan. While broccoli is the go-to veg for healthy dinners globally, historically its roots are in Italy, where it was first cultivated in Roman times. Brassicas in general are a favourite of our Italian friends.
Although incredibly common, broccoli remains one of the vegetables I come back to when I’m in need of a detox or just want a cleansing bowl of brown rice and steamed veg. All it needs is a splash of olive or butter (the two together are even more delicious), a squeeze of lemon juice and a spoonful of your favourite chilli sambol. In classic Italian cooking, it’s paired with chilli and anchovies – one of my favourite pasta dishes is orecchiette with broccoli, anchovy, chilli and capers. With fresh young broccoli, the stalks are also delicious, so peel off the outer edges until you see the lighter green inside bit, then slice, eat raw or lightly blanch. Even slightly pickled would be a delight.
Let it shine
I first took notice of cauliflower when an excellent person I know would cook it in a very simple spaghetti dish. They’d cut the head into tiny florets and fry it in a pan with lemon zest and capers, before adding the pasta. At Berta, my new favourite way to serve cauliflower is by roasting it in a really hot oven, tossing it with capers, parsley, olive oil and lemon juice and then placing it back in the oven with nice large slices of taleggio on top. Actually, taleggio and cauliflower are an excellent match, however you wish to use them. I also love cauliflower puree, which is a little stinky to make but ends up very silky, creamy and subtle. Cauliflower is also excellent sliced finely on a mandolin, lightly blanched and served in a salad. This gets a little messy as bits fly everywhere, but it’s delicious and an unusual way to serve it, especially for spring. Romanesco can be substituted wherever you would use cauliflower.
Cime di rapa, directly translated means ‘‘turnip tops’’, is deliciously bitter and mustardy. I get very excited as soon as it appears at the markets. It is lovely blanched and dressed simply with olive oil; it’s great with mussels and, like many things, it loves a bit of butter.
Photographs by Benito Martin. Styling by Jerrie-Joy Redman-Lloyd.