You may not know the Brassica family by name, but this flavorful species is on your plate more often than you realize. It includes hundreds of cultivars, including kale, collards, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy and mustard greens. Some of the most popular cultivars are descendants of one species of wild cabbage plant discovered in southern Europe and domesticated as early as 2000BC, the Brassica oleracea. Each cultivar today has been selected over time to favor different attributes such as taste and texture.
Try growing Brassica cultivars in your own space. These cold-hardy crops do best in the spring and fall and will thrive throughout October. Collard greens serve up even more nutrients than kale. “Easy to grow, you can transplant them as seedlings in the spring or fall,” says Adam Hill, PHS City Harvest Manager. “There are many varieties of collards and they are always in-demand at our community gardens.”
Collards thrive in urban Philadelphia and the suburbs, and they don’t ask for much in return. Purchase seedlings at a local nursery or garden center, in March or September, and plant them in the sun. They will tolerate partial shade. Cover them with row cover (a mesh fabric sold for this purpose) and watch them grow. “If you plant them in late summer, you’ll have collard greens continuously through December as you harvest the bottom, outside leaves first,” says Hill. Likewise, if you plant them in March, you’ll be seeing green through mid-summer.
“Some gardeners won’t even eat them until they’ve experienced a frost because it makes them sweeter and more tender,” says Hill. “I’ve brushed off heavy snow and eaten them,” says Hill. One of his favorite recipes is very simple: Rinse the leaves, cut them into two-inch wide strips, sauté with garlic and onions until wilted, add a preferred broth and let simmer for two to four hours. He recommends adding red pepper flakes or hot sauce while it is simmering if you want it spicy.
Another member of the Brassica family that is often overlooked is the turnip. A Japanese variety to try – the Harukei – isn’t your old school turnip. “Community gardeners absolutely love them,” says Hill. “They are sweet, juicy and tender and are sometimes referred to as a salad turnip because they are so crisp and delicious. They are amazing cooked or pickled, and the greens are delicious and less spiny than other turnip greens.”
Direct seed the Harukei in March and September and keep them covered. “Be careful not to seed too thickly,” says Hill, “because the seeds are very small.”
Prepare them easily for a meal by trimming the leaves and setting aside. Cut the turnips in halves or quarters and sauté in olive oil and garlic. Blanche the leaves briefly, then add to the pan and sauté with the turnips for 5 minutes. Add salt and fresh black pepper.