eat your greens - winter brassicas

Eat your greens! Winter’s brilliant brassicas.

Did you know that most green leafy vegetables are all part of the same family?  Brassicas include cabbage, broccoli, and even Asian greens like bok choy.  They’re also a nutritional powerhouse and often at their best during the cooler months.  Come and learn about this family of fabulous greens.

Old King Cole…

Brassicas, also known as the “cole” family, are all closely related varieties of plants.  The word “cole” comes from an ancient term for these kinds of vegetables, and it shows up in the names of several of them: cauliflower, kale, collard greens, broccoli, kohlrabi, and even the cabbage that’s used to make coleslaw.

medieval cabbage from the Tacuinum Sanitatis ca. 1400

Medieval gardeners gathering loose-leafed cabbage. The hard-headed varieties weren’t known until the 1500s, when they were first mentioned as “head-coles”.


The Latin word for turnip, “rapa”, shows up in names of several brassicas like rapini, broccoli raab, and kohlrabi again. Even rapeseed (the British name for canola, used to make oil) is a type of brassica.

In Cantonese, many brassica varieties have the word “choy” in their names in some form, such as bok choy, choy sum, and tatsoi, and these terms have been borrowed into Australian English.  The Mandarin equivalent is “cai”.

Brassicas are winter wonders

When summer’s bounty is far behind us, brassicas come to the fore.  Many varieties thrive in cold weather and some even taste sweetest after they’ve been touched by a cold frost.  The greatest pest that attacks brassicas, the cabbage moth, is also dormant in cold weather making this the perfect time to grow them.

kale rimed with frost in a ballarat garden

Frosty kale in a Ballarat garden. Photo credit: Belinda Coates.

Types of brassica

Brassicas broadly fall into the following categories:

  • Headed cabbages (Brassica oleracea var. capitata). Your basic cabbage with tightly furled leaves forming a firm head.  As well as the common green variety, there are red cabbages, savoy cabbages which have crinkly leaves, Chinese cabbages aka wombok or Napa cabbage, and many other varieties.
  • Kale, collards, and other unheaded cabbage varieties.  These are the “acephela” variety of Brassica oleracea which simply means “no head”. They’re like a cabbage, but the leaves grow outwards instead of curling tightly in.  This means they’re exposed to more light, they tend to be a darker colour than cabbage leaves.
  • Edible flower buds: broccoli, cauliflower, and varieties.  These are a kind of Brassica oleracea bred for their flower buds, which we eat just before they burst into bloom.  As well as the common green broccoli and white cauliflower, there are also heirloom coloured varieties, and the fascinating fractal swirls of Romanesco broccoli. Broccolini are a cross between normal broccoli and Chinese broccoli (kai lan).
  • Brussels sprouts are closely related to cabbages, but instead of one big head, many little ones form up a long stalk.  If you’re lucky you may be able to buy them still on the stalk at farmers markets!  A new, trendy version of brussels sprouts just coming into fashion this year is called brukale and grows little heads of loose-leafed kale up the stem instead of little cabbages.
  • Kohlrabi is a variety of Brassica oleracea that grows a bulbous stem. The way its leaves poke out the top make it look rather alien, or like the Sputnik satellite. Kohlrabi’s flavour is similar to broccoli stem, and it can be a good crunchy addition to stir-fries, salads, or many other dishes.
purple kohlrabi demonstrating its alien looks

The kohlrabi bears a striking resemblence to the USSR’s Sputnik Satellite.

  • Mustard is a variety of Brassica rapa and although you may know the variety that’s grown for its seed, mustard greens are also very popular worldwide for their spicy/bitter flavour.  They can be stewed, stir-fried, pickled, or picked young and eaten raw.
  • Turnips are a variety of Brassica rapa which grows a large starchy root. The root can be eaten raw when small and fresh, or cooked when older. Swedes are simply a type of turnip with a yellow flesh – they’re called “rutabagas” in the US, and in Sweden they’re actually called “kålrot“, or “kale root”.
  • Turnip leaves are also edible, though somewhat bitter. In Italy they’re known as “cima di rapa“, aka rapini, and although they come from the same species as root turnips, they are sometimes bred just for the leaves.
  • Bok choy, choy sum, kai lan, and other Asian greens are varieties of Brassica oleracea or Brassica rapa. They’re mostly tender and fast-growing and are best cooked quickly and simply.
  • Mizuna and many other salad greens are part of the brassica family.  Some of the above types of brassicas can also be eaten as salad greens if picked small.

Great ideas for eating Brassicas every day

I grew up on boring steamed broccoli (with a dab of margarine if we were lucky) but these days there are so many more amazing options.  Here are just a few ideas to get you started.

  • Toss broccoli, cauliflower, or brussels sprouts in olive oil and oven-roast them at high temperature for about 20-30 minutes. Let them caramelise and burn slightly around the edges – delicious!  You can also add extras like chopped bacon, slivered almonds, lemon zest, or strongly flavoured cheese depending on taste.
  • Make a creamy soup by simmering cauliflower and potato in veg or chicken stock, then blending it. Add milk or cream to taste, or try coconut milk and some curry powder for a spicy twist.
  • Ditch mayonnaise-y gloop for an Asian-inspired coleslaw: use wombok/Chinese cabbage, bean sprouts, coriander and chopped peanuts. Dress with rice vinegar and a dash of sesame oil.
  • Make cabbage rolls by wrapping blanched cabbage leaves around a filling of pork, onions and rice. Cook them in a covered casserole dish with a layer of tomato sauce above and below. You can also make rolls with any other large leafy kind of brassica, and get as creative as you like with the fillings.
  • Steam or pan-grill broccolini and serve it with sourdough toast and eggs for brunch.
  • Using bamboo steamers, cook dumplings in one layer and bok choy or choy sum in a second. Drizzle with oyster sauce or sesame oil and a sprinkle of sesame seeds to serve. A super quick meal for one!
  • Ferment your cabbage into sauerkraut or kimchi, to add flavour and a probiotic kick.  You can eat it as a side vegetable, put it in sandwiches, or make it into warming winter dishes like the French “choucroute” (sauerkraut and sausages) or a Korean-inspired miso-kimchi stew with pumpkin, tofu, and mushrooms.
kimchi on a plate

Kimchi is spicy fermented wombok (Chinese cabbage) – a Korean favourite, and easy to make at home.

  • Slow-cook kale or collards over a low heat, with diced onions and ham, chickpeas, and a spoonful of smoked paprika for a Spanish flavour.  Let it cook until thoroughly soft and the flavours are well melded. Serve with fresh crusty bread, or over baked potatoes.
  • For the best kale salad, massage the leaves with the dressing and let stand for at least an hour before eating. The oil in the salad dressing helps break down the natural waxy coating on the leaves and makes them more digestible. A good winter kale salad combo is baked pumpkin, toasted pumpkin seeds, torn kale leaves, roasted red capsicum (from a jar), and a whole grain like quinoa or brown rice.
  • Make a quick pasta dinner by adding chopped rapini, broccolini or broccoli florets to the pasta water a few minutes before the pasta is done. Reserve half a cup of the cooking water, then strain.  Toss the pasta and veg with grated parmesan and freshly ground black pepper, using a little of the water to help it form a sauce. Sprinkle chilli flakes on top if you like a hot kick!
  • Make an easy curry with cauliflower florets or diced kohlrabi. Just add them to your favourite curry base, such as a creamy korma or a spicy dal.
  • Make a veggie frittata or quiche with half a dozen eggs, some precooked or leftover broccoli, kale or rapini, and whatever other fillings you have to hand. Try roasted veg, sliced mushrooms, or even cubes of bread for a brunchy bread pudding.
  • Toss Asian greens into a noodle soup, using any flavour base that takes your fancy: tom yum or miso paste are good starting points, or simply start with good stock and some ginger, garlic and chilli.
  • Make a broccoli or kale pesto, by processing the raw or steamed veg with garlic, olive oil, nuts of your choice (eg. almonds or walnuts), and grated parmesan. Use it as a dip/spread, or toss through pasta, whole grains, or roasted veg.

There are hundreds of ways to eat your greens all through winter. If you need more tips, just google for any of the ideas above.

What’s your favourite way to eat winter greens?

You may also like...

Leave a Reply