Cauliflower, broccoli, broccolini, broccoli rabe, Romanesco, Brussels sprouts, my favorite brassicas, are nudging kale out of the spotlight. Humble yet chic, they're having their day.
Like all brassicas — cabbage, turnips, radishes, chard, arugula, etc. — they grow remarkably well in our region and are perfect this time of year when the temperatures plummet and their feisty flavors mellow and turn complex right before frost. Now is a good time to embrace fall's pleasures and move back into the kitchen to simmer and bake and roast. Brassicas fit the bill.
I am especially fond of the newer arrivals to our farmers markets. Take Romanesco broccoli, or broccoflower, with its lovely chartreuse color and fractal form. The cauliflower-broccoli hybrid has a more tender texture and delicate taste than either of its parents, and is just as easy to cook.
Consider the trio of broccoli, broccolini and broccoli rabe. Broccoli is slightly bitter yet a bit sweet with thick, meaty stems. Milder, sweeter broccolini sports firm, crunchy stems and leafy florets. Broccoli rabe can be mustardy with a rough stem and leaves. Cauliflower arrives in rainbow colors — buttery yellow, shocking purple and cream — that all cook and taste much the same as the more familiar white variety.
Each member of the brassica team is captivating in its own cabbage-y way. They offer a range of verdant stems and flowering heads with distinct tastes that are best matched to assertive ingredients, herbs and spices. Think warm curries, sharp vinaigrettes, umami condiments, aged cheese and bold herbs such as sage, rosemary and oregano.
All brassicas are nutrition powerhouses, packed with vitamins and minerals as well as health-promoting antioxidant compounds. That's a lot of good in a low-calorie package. Best for the cook is the many ways they can play on the plate. What you do with one, you can do with all. Steam or blanch them to keep their flavors intact; sauté them to be tender and crisp.
My favorite method is to roast them in a hot pan or oven. They absorb the oil and seasoning, soaking up all that richness while remaining firm. They're best sliced into chunks about a half-inch thick so the flat surfaces brown evenly while the crumbles turn nutty and crunchy. Rarely are they in danger of being overcooked. Season the slices with salt and pepper before roasting. Better yet, dust them with spices like cumin, mustard seeds and ginger. Or take them in a Mediterranean direction by tossing with garlic, oregano and parsley about five minutes before pulling them from the oven.
Once they're roasted, give the vegetables a boost with a drizzle of lemon or lime juice or balsamic or malt vinegar and serve right out of the oven (beware of burning your fingers as you pick them off the pan). Or set them out at room temperature for appetizers with a mustardy dipping sauce; toss them with a rough vinaigrette and toasted nuts for a fall salad; drizzle them with a rich tahini-garlic or creamy cheese sauce for a hearty side dish. Whir them in the blender with stock and a splash of cream to serve as a side dish purée or a lush soup. Tangled with pasta and aged cheese they make a light dinner.
These roasted veggies will keep in the refrigerator in a covered container for about three days, ready for any dish you ask of them. With their assertive flavors and sturdy characters, brassicas usher fall into our kitchens.
Serves 4 to 6.
Be warned, these vegetables may not make it out of the pan — they are finger-singeing delicious. Serve them as an appetizer, as a side dish to roasted meat and chicken, or toss with pasta and shredded Parmesan cheese. Mix them up or focus on just one. We've drizzled them with balsamic vinegar to add an umami note and scattered dried cranberries and pecans over the lot for a sweet, nutty finish. From Beth Dooley.
• 2 lb. brassicas (cauliflower, Romanesco, broccoli, Brussels sprouts)
• 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
• Generous pinch coarse and freshly ground black pepper
• 1 to 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, to taste
• 1/4 c. pecans
• 1/4 c. dried cranberries
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the brassicas into 2-inch chunks. Place the vegetables on the baking sheet and toss with the olive oil and a generous pinch of salt and pepper.
Roast the vegetables, turning occasionally, until tender, golden brown and crunchy, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove, drizzle with balsamic vinegar to taste and scatter the pecans and cranberries over the vegetables before serving.
Brown Butter Steamed Brassicas with Parmesan Breadcrumbs
Serves 4 to 6.
This easy, elegant dish gets a nutty note from browned butter, toasted breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. The lemon zest and juice give it all a nice lift. This makes a fine side dish, or served over brown rice or a whole grain, it's a lovely fall meal. From Beth Dooley.
• 2 lb. mixed brassicas
• 4 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into chunks
• 1/2 c. water
• 2 tbsp. lemon juice, to taste
• Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
• 3 oz. shredded Parmesan
• 1 1/2 c. toasted crumbs (see below)
Cut the brassicas into 1 1/2-inch pieces, so they're all approximately the same size. Put a large skillet over medium heat. Melt the butter and watch as it becomes foamy, swirling the butter in the pan to make sure it cooks evenly. When the butter begins to smell nutty and the color becomes a golden brown, whisk in 1/2 cup of water and lemon juice. Add the vegetables, cover and cook until tender but still firm, about 5 to 8 minutes. Remove the lid, season to taste with salt and pepper. Scatter the cheese and breadcrumbs over the vegetables. Serve hot.
To toast the breadcrumbs: You can make breadcrumbs by pulsing chunks bread in a food processor. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the breadcrumbs on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and bake until the breadcrumbs are golden, stirring so they brown evenly. Remove and set aside.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Perennial Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.