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The Brassica Family

OK, before we get started on my regularly scheduled column, I’ve got a confession to make – I don’t have all those extra television stations on cable or satellite. Some of my friends and neighbors wonder how I can possibly get along without shelling out extra bucks to widen my viewing options. Frankly, I get along pretty well, thank you very much. I’m not a television hater or anything, I just don’t build my life around it. This doesn’t make me a good person or a bad person. I’ve just got a bunch of stuff I enjoy doing more.

The biggest handicap I’ve encountered from my limited number of television channels is that I’m not always up on the comings and goings of a lot of shows that only appear on places like HBO or Showtime or the Car Chase Cussing Network. This leaves me open to moments of confusion when folks refer to events that happened in their favorite comedy, drama, or reality show. Unlike an added fee for watching the tube, these awkward moments are a price I’m willing to pay. Sometimes, I even get some fun out them.

One of my fun moments happened last week at a local hardware store.

I drop in there on a regular basis to pick up odds and ends. It’s a small but comfy place and just about everybody who works there knows me by sight, if not by name. Most of them know that I garden and a few of them also know that I do a bit of writing on the side. On this particular day, the woman behind the counter happened to ask me what I was working on next.

That’s when the fun began.

“If you’re asking about my scribbling,” I said, “I’m just about to start working on a piece about the Brassica family.”

The fellow standing behind me in line couldn’t have been much more than twenty-five years old, but he’d managed to pack a whole lot of meat on his bones in that quarter century or so. He looked to be several inches over six feet tall and several pounds above 300. When he let out a booming “Whoa!” it shook every penny nail I had in the bag I was holding.

He enthusiastically clamped a baseball glove sized hand on my shoulder and started ranting about the Brassicas.

“Them Brassicas are some tough dudes, man! They gave Tony just about all he could handle back when he was having trouble with the New York mob. Nobody wants to go messing with the Brassica family. You write for TV?”

I gave him a small smile and told him I wrote about gardens.

He moved his paw off my shoulder and shook his head. “Whatcha writing about the Sopranos for if you write about garden stuff?”

Good question. I wish I could report that I had a good answer. I was left with the impression that my comments about cauliflower, broccoli, bok choi, and cabbage didn’t quite live up to the imaginary exploits of the fictional mob family he had in his head. I’m pretty sure that I’d already lost most of my credibility when he found out that I didn’t write for television.

Although the Brassica family I’m writing about today contains no loan sharks, enforcers, retainered lawyers, or bookies, you’ll find a few colorful characters here. Several members of this family are so attractive, they give your survival garden an ornamental look. Purple or green kohlrabi has an eye-catching presence and the red, curly, rugged look of leafy kale is a stunning sight during the winter. Certain varieties of “mini” cabbage and Asian mustard greens can be used as bed edging to give your garden a pleasant appearance. While you won’t spot any of these characters on a Most Wanted poster, they pack a powerful nutritional punch.

Kohlrabi is an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium. It also contains good quantities of vitamin B6, folic acid, magnesium and copper. Kohlrabi leaves are also high in vitamin A. Some studies indicate that consuming kohlrabi on a regular basis can help stabilize blood sugar levels. Kale is not only a stunning sight, it makes an attractive addition to your diet. It is very high in beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, leuetin and zeaxanthin. Kale is also a relatively good source of calcium. Asian mustard greens and “mini” cabbages share many of the same benefits as their “K cousins.”

Each member of the Brassica family is low in calories and high in fiber, making them potent allies in the fight to shed a few unwanted pounds.

If you go back and check my last column (Of Cabbages and Kings), you’ll find a list of some of my favorite Brassica family members. Today, I’d like to take a few moments to concentrate on two of them that have hit the big time. You’ll find them in produce sections and frozen food departments throughout the land. If this was a TV show about the Brassica family, you’d probably see “Starring Broccoli and Cauliflower” in the opening credits.

The 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, pushed broccoli into the headlines back in March of 1990 when he banned broccoli from Air Force One and the White House. Seriously! My large hardware store companion is too young to remember the days when broccoli was an outlaw, otherwise he might have been more impressed with my version of the Brassica family. Back then, Bush the Senior said in no uncertain terms, “I don’t like broccoli and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!”

His loss.

Various studies have shown that broccoli is one lean, green, fighting machine when it comes to building and preserving health. Like most members of the Brassica family, this veggie superstar contains significant quantities of I3C and sulforaphane, powerful warriors in your body’s battle against cancer. A half-cup of steamed broccoli provides 85% of your Daily Value for vitamin C, while also providing a healthy dose of beta- carotene, folate, calcium, and fiber. To get the most benefit from this healthy vegetable, you want to grow it organically and pick it straight from your garden. If you’re going to cook it, you want to make sure you don’t overdo it. According to Jon Michnovicz, M.D., PhD, president of the Foundation for Preventative Oncology in New York City, “Carotenoids like beta-carotene are preserved by heat but the indoles, like I3C, don’t withstand a lot of heat. Light steaming is a great way to cook broccoli. And microwaving is okay, too.”

Although often overshadowed by its darker-hued brother, cauliflower is no slouch when it comes to boosting your immune system and fighting the good fight against cancer-causing situations in your body. Packing a double-barreled combo of sulforaphane and I3C, cauliflower can reduce levels of harmful estrogens which are prone to foster tumor growth in hormone-sensitive cells, like those in the breast and prostate gland. Three uncooked florets of cauliflower provide a whopping 67% of your Daily Value of vitamin C; that’s more than you’d get if you ate a whole tangerine and most of you probably don’t have the right climate to be growing tangerines in your survival gardens. In addition to these benefits, these humble white florets provide a good quantity of vitamin E, beta-carotene, and fiber.

Unfortunately for some people, cauliflower also contains amino acids called purines which break down into uric acid in the body. Folks who suffer from gout should avoid cauliflower. You don’t need any more of those sharp-edged uric acid crystals jabbing their way into your joints. On the bright side, you can get a lot of the same health benefits of cauliflower from several other members of the Brassica family. Cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts contain similar nutritional power with a much lower concentration of uric acid producing purines.

The Brassica family is one of the most versatile groups in your survival garden. They are easily raised from seed and transplant well with the addition of a good organic fertilizer like Protogrow. Western brassicas, like broccoli and cauliflower, are usually sown in the spring and summer. Many Asian varieties, like Bok Choi, tend to have trouble in hot, dry conditions so are best sown in late summer, giving you a tasty fall harvest. Some of the Brassicas, like arugula and radishes, grow very quickly. Even kohlrabi and broccoli can crop up in as little as eight weeks. In warmer climates, you can do a succession of sowings to maintain a steady supply of these healthy vegetables.

A final note of caution on growing Brassicas is in order right about here. Since you can grow different members of this family virtually year round in many climates, cabbage whitefly and mealy aphids can really start building up over time. I highly recommend removing all members of the Brassica family from your garden about once a year. I usually do this in early spring. Hoe the spot thoroughly and leave that area vacant for a few weeks to squelch the whitefly and aphid population growth.

I usually run netting over my leafy Brassicas in the late fall to keep the birds from turning that section of my garden into an all you can eat buffet. I really can’t blame our feathered friends for heading for these healthy plants when other food sources become scarce, but since I’m so fond of the flavors, textures, and nutritional value of my cool weather Brassicas, I like to keep as much as I can for me and my own family.

Personally, I still don’t know how or if Tony Soprano had trouble with the Brassica family. I’ve always found them one of the friendliest groups to grow in a survival garden and I think you will too. Give them a try, you won’t regret it.

Until next time, this is Jerry signing off and wishing you a wonderful time in the garden.

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