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FOOD AND COMMON SENSE

Nutrient-Rich Cruciferae Vegetables Build Character Into Family Meal

November 09, 1989|DR. JEAN MAYER and JEANNE GOLDBERG

Blackberries in Boston? Peaches in Pittsburgh? In the dead of winter? No problem, provided that you're willing to pay the price--and compromise a little on flavor.

Many produce items once limited to certain regions or seasons are now available every day of the year--a feat made possible by modern packaging and handling methods, coupled with a transportation network that brings remote corners of the world as close as a neighborhood supermarket.

No one suggests that we reset the clock to when our ancestors enjoyed cucumbers for only five months a year (and ate the surplus as pickles the rest of the time), and fresh tomatoes for an even briefer period. On the other hand, it's regrettable many of us have forgotten, or never tried, the vegetable delights that sustained folks not only in the fall, harvested at peak, but also as they were held over long winters in root cellars, dried or preserved. Among these are the Cruciferae, a group of vegetables with four-petal flowers in the shape of a cross.

Like most other vegetables, the Cruciferae are potent sources of vitamins and minerals. They contain few calories and are virtually fat-free. But when it comes to meal preparation, vegetables--the Cruciferae included--too often get shortchanged.

We can't pretend that overcooked, under-seasoned broccoli, Brussels sprouts and turnips are irresistibly appealing. What we can say is that properly prepared and seasoned, these and other Cruciferae--cabbage, cauliflower, mustard greens, kale, collards, kohlrabi, turnips and rutabagas--will lend taste, texture and nutrition to meals.

First, consider calories. A half-cup serving of any of these vegetables ranges from a low of 7 calories for turnip greens to a high of 40 calories for mashed rutabaga. Even twice that amount, if not drenched in butter or cheese sauce, will hardly break the day's calorie bank.

Next, check nutrients. A half-cup serving of broccoli or Brussels sprouts provides nearly all the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Vitamin C--as much as a half cup of orange juice. Various other Cruciferae--cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, rutabaga and turnip greens--also contribute substantial Vitamin C.

As for Vitamin A, the Cruciferae represent some of the richest sources of beta carotene, which the body converts to make that vitamin. One half-cup serving of collards meets the entire day's RDA, and a half cup of kale goes about 80% of the way. But there are several other good sources, too, including broccoli, Brussels sprouts and turnip greens.

These vegetables, particularly collards, kale and broccoli, contribute calcium, too. Most contain appreciable amounts of iron and are generally good sources of fiber. Finally, increased use of Cruciferae has been linked in some studies to reduced risk of certain cancers.

Obviously, there's plenty to recommend these foods nutritionally; the challenge is to get people to partake of them often. An important first step is proper preparation.

The plain fact is that these vegetables don't take kindly to overcooking. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts, for instance, are far better served on the slightly crunchy side than limp, yellowed and tasting of the sulfur compound that makes them unappealing to people of all ages. Depending on the size of the pieces, four servings of broccoli cook in just 5 minutes in a microwave oven, or about 10 minutes if steamed.

Timing for other Cruciferae varies with the size of the pieces, but all require relatively brief cooking, far less than the rest of the meal. They also require little personal attention, apart from an occasional glance to check for overcooking.

A second approach to overcoming resistance is to combine these vegetables with other, milder ones. Brussels sprouts can be mixed with carrots or lightly sauteed mushrooms. Cauliflower and small green peas harmonize well. Shredded turnips and carrots, lightly steamed and enhanced by chopped dill, are another good team for flavor and texture. You can combine rutabaga, turnips and even cauliflower in equal parts with mashed potato and season with freshly grated nutmeg for an excellent puree. Chopped collards can be cooked with rice in a chicken broth, and steamed kale goes well with cooked lentils generously seasoned with black pepper.

While we think nothing tastes better than a plain, properly cooked vegetable with its true flavor shining through, judicious use of herbs and spices can add sparkle. Try chopped parsley and chives on cauliflower, or caraway seeds on Brussels sprouts steamed in chicken broth. Sauteed green onion enlivens the flavor of kale or other greens.

Or make a simple sauce of yogurt seasoned with horseradish, pepper, vinegar and a dash of salt to top broccoli. Cruciferae may never replace peas on the banquet circuit, but if well prepared, they can add character to many a family meal.

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