You can joke all you will about the lowly cabbage, but don’t be surprised when a few members of its family, the big brassica band, show up nicely dressed for your holiday feast. After the holidays, make way for them on your plate when you start that healthy New Year’s diet: they are low in calories, rich in vitamin C, and are even credited with helping prevent some types of cancer.

California is one of the major producers of these cool-weather crops, which include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale. When picked fresh from the field and given the cooking techniques they deserve, they can turn meals from boring to brilliant, livening up the kitchen in the process with a delightful variety of shapes, colors, and sizes.

Cabbage

The pale green leaves of the common, round head cabbage are definitely my choice to use when making savory stuffed cabbage rolls. Raw, delicate napa or Savoy cabbage do well shredded in salads, and they can be quickly braised or steamed as a side dish, or tossed in with a stir fry. Traditional dishes using cabbage abound, and so we find napa cabbage pickled, salted, and flavored with ginger and chili peppers as kim chi, the national dish of Korea, and red cabbage braised in unfiltered apple juice with sautéed onion, bacon, and apple as a beloved Germanic dish. Bok choy, a non-heading cabbage from China that comes in many names and many sizes, is a favorite in many Asian dishes. Keep an eye out at the market for Lue Her, who raises bok choy, yu choy (looks like a green stemmed bok choy), gai lan (a slightly bitter, leafy brassica), napa cabbage, cabbage, broccoli, and kohlrabi in Fresno, and brings many of these to East Bay farmers markets through the winter.

Broccoli and its look-alikes

If you see me at the farmers market in the next few months, you can be sure my market bag will have in it some shiny green stalks of broccoli topped with tight, full-looking florets. Fresh-picked broccoli delivers a sweet, mild taste and aroma, not the strong cabbagey one that sometimes gives the cole family a bad rap. In general, it’s overcooking that brings out the sulphuros tones in cabbages.

Many people wonder about those bundles of broccolini that look sort of like small wanna-be broccoli. This vegetable is actually a cross between broccoli and gai lan (Chinese broccoli). With its sweet tenderness, it works well in pasta dishes, soups, and frittatas.

Broccoli rabe also looks much like broccoli, with just a few small florets poking out of dark green leafy stems. But really, it’s the flower shoot of a type of turnip (also a brassica, along with the rutabaga and radish). It may be found under several aliases—namely rapini, cima di rapa, broccoli de raab, or rabe. I consider this one of the best leafy greens of winter. Soups, salads, and potato dishes come alive with a handful of blanched broccoli rabe cut into 1-inch pieces.

The head-turner of the broccoli group is broccoli romanesco. This gorgeous heirloom variety has an other-worldly appearance with its tight spirals of lime green, cone-shaped florets. Don’t pass it up when it’s available. You’ll enjoy a taste much like cauliflower, and in fact, some say romanesco is a cauliflower.

Cauliflower

Firm, white heads of cauliflower usually come to market without the impressive large leaves that encase them in the field. The leaves protect the head from the sun and keep the florets from turning green. The firm, green look of the leaves is a good way to check for freshness, so when these are lacking, I choose cauliflowers that are heavy for their size and have firm florets.

Prepare cauliflower for cooking or eating raw by cutting away any remaining pieces of the large outer leaves. Then remove the core using a small sharp knife, cutting in at an angle so the core comes out in a cone shape. Otherwise, leave the head whole and place stem side down in a large saucepan with 2 to 3 inches of water. Cover and boil gently for 10 to 15 minutes until the stem end is tender when pierced with a knife. Drain and serve with a squeeze of lemon, plus salt and pepper.

Roasting is another easy and delicious way to prepare cauliflower. Break or cut apart the florets and place in a single layer in an ovenproof dish. Splash on a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, plus salt and pepper to taste. Bake uncovered at 400º for about 20 minutes or until tender. A sprinkle of Parmesan cheese near the end of the cooking time adds a nice finish to the dish. Garlic lovers can add a few minced cloves to the cauliflower before baking.

Kale

Kale is a nutrient dynamo, and many people find it wonderfully flavorful, especially in the middle of winter, when a touch of frost sweetens it up. Kale comes to market in many varieties, which include Scotch types (very curled and wrinkled leaves), Russian types (almost flat with deeply cut leaves), and ornamental types (particularly attractive for garnishing vegetable or fruit platters, and also fun in the garden, where pink, purple, and white varieties flourish). An emerging favorite is dinosaur kale (named for its reptilian texture), an heirloom variety known in Italy as “lacinato.” Ledesma Farms from Gustine (Merced County) brings excellent organic dino to many East Bay markets. County Line Farm of Petaluma, sells lacinato, green frill, and red Russian kale at the Grand Lake and Berkeley Saturday farmers markets, as well as broccoli rabe, broccoli de Cicco, and romanesco.

Collards

Like kale, collards are one of the non-head-forming members of the Brassica family. They grow all year long and do well in warmer climates, but, like kale, improve in flavor as the weather cools. Their mild, almost smoky flavor is associated in many minds with Southern cooking. Purple tree collards have become something of a perennial edibles mascot of the permaculture movement, due to their easy propagation, long growing season, and stellar nutritional qualities.

Brussels Sprouts

I used to look for small Brussels sprouts, but Shirley Lea from Cabrillo Farms in Half Moon Bay assures me that the sweetest are the largest ones cut from the top of the stalk. Brussels sprouts grow on 2- to 3-foot stalks that are topped by a crown of leaves, which give the plants the appearance of small palm trees. The sprouts mature from the base of the stalk upward, so when the leaves begin to yellow, the 50 or more little cabbages on the stalk are ready for harvest. Fresh Brussels sprouts are mild and nutty tasting. They are good for simmering, baking, or shredding raw into salads, but by all means, use them as soon as possible after purchasing, and don’t over cook them unless you want them to live up to the holiday-time jokes.

Enjoy and see you at the market!

Barbara Kobsar is a home economist and 20-year veteran journalist who promotes the enjoyment of in-season produce. She has also authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. She spends part of every week scoping out the season’s harvest at East Bay farmers markets, and when not roaming the aisles she is at her market stand selling the Cottage Kitchen jams and pepper jellies she makes from farmers market produce. Contact her at cotkitchen@aol.com

These illustrations by Rosalie Z Fanshel are excerpts from her book Within Every Cabbage there is an Oak Tree: Sweet Farming in Northern California.

For this issue, we invited Arthur Wall, executive chef for The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, to share seasonal recipes with Edible East Bay readers. You can find the recipes by going to our recipe collection for this issue and looking for Choucroute, and Duck Breast. For wine pairings with these recipes, try Wente Vineyards Shorthorn Canyon Syrah or Wente Vineyards Riverbank Riesling

At age 126, Wente is the country’s oldest family-owned winery in continuous operation. Throughout the years, five generations of Wente family members have managed the land carefully to produce wine along with other agricultural products, such as cattle, olive oil, and produce for the restaurant kitchens.

“‘Carbon footprint’ wasn’t in my vocabulary until recently,” said fourth-generation winemaker Carolyn Wente in a May interview. “But using what we have as our own resources here on the property has always been our approach.”

Winemaker Karl Wente (Carolyn’s nephew), a strapping 32-year-old who rides his horse between home on the property and the various vineyards he tends, says that organic farming was the way you did it back in his grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s day “because there was no choice. . . . Some growers go hard down the organic path. We’re on the sustainable path,” which he explains is not just about healthy soils (“the foundation”), but also about “healthy social networks—neighbors who appreciate that you’re there, workers who are treated with respect.”

The Wentes are pleased at the role they have been able to play as leaders in the Livermore Valley and in California winemaking. During separate tenures as president of the California Wine Institute, fourth-generation winemakers Phil and Eric Wente helped oversee the development of that nonprofit trade organization’s Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices, which “promotes farming and winemaking practices that are sensitive to the environment and responsive to the needs and interests of society in general.” Carolyn Wente currently serves on the Wine Institute’s Sustainable Practices Certification Committee, helping steer the transition from the current self-assessment program to a formal certification program in partnership with the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

Carolyn says it’s been important to the family that they did not just climb on the sustainability bandwagon when it became a movement. “It was something we grew up with. We’re working on how we articulate it and on how we can educate with it.”

Wente Vineyards

5050 Arroyo Road, Livermore

925.456.240, wentevineyards.com

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