The brilliance of brassicas.

Although not the sexiest members of the vegetable world (with the glorious exception of romanesco broccoli), brassicas, also known as cruciferous vegetables, are nutritional powerhouses that deserve a place on our plates every day.

A super-sexy romanesco.

I’ve been trying to find out if there’s any difference between brassicas and cruciferous vegetables, but the two terms seem to be totally interchangeable – if you know different, please tell me! Here in East Lothian, it’s brassica central, with the fields full of cabbages and brussels sprouts so I feel duty bound to make the most of what’s on the doorstep.

Brassicas – my top 10 (a more comprehensive list here)

  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage – all varieties, green, red, savoy, chinese/napa.
  • Radish
  • Rocket
  • Kale
  • Pak Choi (and Chinese greens in general).
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Watercress
  • Cress
  • Kale

    Not sure what this is, but I’d bet my house on it being a brassica.

The great thing is that they’re such a broad group that whatever season it is; whether you are in soup or salad mode, there’s always something that you can go for. One item not featured in my top 10, which I feel slightly guilty and unpatriotic about, is the humble turnip. Anyone got any good recipes for neeps that don’t necessarily include haggis and tatties?

What’s so brilliant about them?

  1. They contain cancer-protecting compounds called glucosinolates. These contain sulphur and are responsible for the strong ‘cabbagey’ taste of brassicas. As these compounds are broken down in the body, they create more active substances which have been shown in animal studies to hinder the growth of cancer cells. Studying their effects on humans hasn’t given such clear cut results but there’s an almost £4,000,000 research project underway on this right now so watch this space (and in the meantime, I’ll keep eating my cabbage).
  2. They can help balance oestrogen in the body. As I’ve been studying, it’s become clear that as far as hormones go, what we want to do, is use them for what they’re designed for and then get them out of the body pronto, before they are reabsorbed or start to meander down potentially harmful metabolic pathways. Brassicas not only help us to do this, but can also block oestrogen receptors in cases when there’s too much oestrogen in the body. MEN – this is not just relevant for women – males can also be affected by excess oestrogen, so there’s no excuse for you to avoid your brussels sprouts…

    Have you tried them roasted? They actually taste good!
  3. Their bitter taste stimulates the gall bladder. This might not sound like a big deal, but anyone who has experienced gall-bladder pain will know how excruciating it is when things go wrong in this department. Without a good squirt of bile to break down our fats, cholesterol levels can rise, our digestion can go awry and gallstones can develop. If you already have a gallbladder problem, I certainly wouldn’t suggest eating a cupful of radishes before each meal as it might stir things up too much. But for the rest of us, a handful of rocket leaves or a couple of radishes before dinner, especially if it’s a rich one, will prime the gallbladder and help us digest.(An aside: On holiday in Austria earlier in the year, after ordering some lovely sausages in a bar, little dishes with grated ‘stuff’ appeared alongside them. Presuming that the ‘stuff’ was cheese, we encouraged the kids to get stuck in, only to discover that it was grated horseradish, to help the wursts settle nicely in our stomachs. The boys were horrified, but this was a great illustration of the benefits of brassicas!)

    Beautiful St Johann. Home of the wurst/horseradish combo.
  4. They assist with detoxification. As well as helping to get rid of spent oestrogen; the substances made when brassicas break down in the body help support the super-busy cells of your liver with detoxification in general. Cress actually contains the highest concentration of the compound that does this, so if you’ve got out of the swing of buying those random little punnets of cress in the supermarket, get them back in your basket and on top of your food – they’re the cheapest and most powerful sprouts that you’re going to find in the shops.
  5. They’re full of fibre, vitamins and minerals. The key vitamin components are Vitamins A and C and folic acid (B9) and there’s lots more information about micronutrients in brassicas here.

An important note about brassicas and the thyroid gland:
For people with thyroid problems, there’s a suggestion that a big intake of brassicas could make things worse. From the reading I’ve done, it seems that you need to consume huge amounts of raw vegetables to have any impact on the thyroid gland, and to stay on the safe side, light cooking can prevent any ill effects.

Eating them.

Loads of brassicas, like broccoli and rocket are just part of the weekly shop and however you prepare them at home, it’s worth remembering that chopping them up and giving them a good chew both help to get the good components out of them. (Something like the coleslaw from last week’s blog  is great for this). I reckon that I usually have at least one portion each day, and recently, have loved getting back into things like radish which I never thought to buy, just because it didn’t occur to me. I really am determined to learn to love turnip, and get up to at least 2 portions of brassicas daily.

Radishes, my new favourite. The hotter the better.

Also, I was reading in James Wong’s lovely book; ‘How to Eat Better‘ that if you add a bit of mustard powder to your cooked brassicas (or horseradish, or grated radish) you can reactivate enzymes in the cooked vegetable that make it just as nutritious as the raw version. With this in mind, he has a recipe for a fab mustard dressing. This is great to know because I don’t always feel like chomping my way through a big bowl of raw vegetables, especially now we’re coming into winter up here in the frozen North.

James Wong’s Magic Mustard Dressing.

  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp mustard powder
  • Big pinch of good salt
  • 1/4 tsp dried dill
  • 1/4 tsp clear honey

Whisk together. Et voila.

Finally, another tip from the lovely Mr Wong (he really is quite lovely) , is to go for the darkest or brightest coloured versions of any vegetable as these ones contain the most phytonutrients. So broccoli totally trumps cauliflower, and purple-sprouting broccoli trumps regular broccoli.

Now here’s a recipe from me:

Somewhat Asian Savoy Cabbage

  • 1 savoy cabbage, outer leaves and core removed and shredded
  • 4 grated carrots
  • 1 inch ginger, grated.
  • ½ a red chilli chopped finely
  • 1 teaspoon or 1 tablespoon tamari/soy sauce according to taste
  • ½ a tin of coconut milk


  1. Get a saucepan with a lid, fill it with about 2cms of water and bring to the boil.
  2. Throw in the cabbage and carrot, put the lid on and leave to cook/steam for about 6 minutes.
  3. Drain the cabbage and carrots very well.
  4. Throw all of the ingredients back into the saucepan and stir them together briefly over the heat.
    (If you want to reactivate the enzymes using the tip above, just add grated raw radish or shredded rocket leaves right before eating).

You could have this along with some brown rice and pan-fried fish for a really easy dinner, it’s very quick and painless to make. (Note: no claims made as to child friendliness) 

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