The Incredible Crucifers—Tame Bitterness & Reap Rewards
“Most botanists agree that our modern crucifers developed from wild plants that grow in the eastern Mediterranean region,” says Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, who researched nutritional data published worldwide for nine years to complete her book. “In nature, they are leafy greens without a crown or central head, much like our modern kale. Roman conquerors brought the vegetables to the British Isles around 500 A.D.”
Robinson notes, “Unlike most of our produce, crucifers have not been watered down or sweetened up. This is good news and bad news. The good news is that crucifers offer more health benefits than all but a few fruits and vegetables. The bad news is that many of them have a bitter or spicy taste that drives many customers away, especially children and supertasters.
“Compounds called glucosinolates are the main source of their health benefits and their off-putting flavor,” she adds, “The more glucosinolates in a vegetable, the better it is for you, but the more bitter it tastes. Kale and Brussels sprouts have the most glucosinolates, and they are also the least liked of all our fruits and vegetables. On average, adults in the United States manage to choke down only a half-cup of Brussels sprouts per year. We eat 250 times more white potatoes.”
Robinson says, “Most crucifers are rich in antioxidants. According to our research, broccoli and kale are loaded with antioxidants, but we eat them in very small amounts. New research highlights another problem with crucifers. Even those people who crave them and eat them in large quantities may be getting only a fraction of what the vegetables have to offer. If the vegetables are freshly harvested, they are among the most healthful foods of all.
“But by the time they are shipped, warehoused, displayed in the supermarket and stored in your home refrigerator, they can lose up to 80 per cent of their beneficial nutrients. Their natural sweetness disappears as well, and their bitter flavor becomes more intense. Furthermore, if you cook the vegetables in the most common way, very few nutrients remain. Raw kale is higher in Vitamin C, antioxidants and phytonutrients than cooked kale. Chop it and add it to salads. Steaming kale or sautéing it in olive oil just long enough to wilt the greens is the best way to cook it. Briefly cooked kale has a mild flavor and no sulfurous odor.”
Robinson concludes that a great way to get children interested in eating kale is to make kale chips. “Making roasted kale chips is a growing trend among health-conscious consumers,” she says, “The directions are simple. Children might want to help out. Make a large bowlful, because they go fast. Some recipes recommend a low oven temperature, but the longer it takes to bake kale, the more nutrients are lost. A setting of 350 degrees F. results in more nutritious chips. If you use the convection bake setting, lower the temperature to 325 degrees F.”
Baked Kale Chips
Prep Time: 15 Minutes—Total Time: 23-25 Minutes—Yield 4 cups
- 8 ounces kale
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, preferably unfiltered
- Salt to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Rinse the kale leaves thoroughly, shake off excess water, and tear the leaves off the ribs in roughly 2-inch pieces. Discard the ribs. Dry the leaves between layers of paper towels or in a salad spinner.
- Transfer the leaves to a large mixing bowl, and toss with the olive oil and salt, coating both sides. Place a single layer of leaves on one or more baking sheets and bake for 8-10 minutes, or until crisp, but not too dry. Turn once. Cool and serve.
Notes: Variations: Use sesame oil instead of olive oil and sprinkle the kale with 2 tablespoons sesame seeds before baking. Or press 1 clove of garlic into the olive oil and let rest for 10 minutes before mixing with raw kale.
Prep Time: 35 Minutes—Total Time: 50 Minutes—Serves 4
- 1 pound fresh, whole-wheat pizza dough
- 8 ounces sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced (about 4 cups)
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 1 cup chopped curly kale leaves (about ¼ ounce)
- ½ cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves
- 1 ¼ ounces Parmesan cheese shredded (about ½ cup)
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon plain yellow cornmeal
- 1 (6-ounce) container fresh mozzarella cheese, torn
- 3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about ¾ cup)
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
- Remove pizza dough from refrigerator, and let stand at room temperature 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 500 degrees F. with an oven rack in center of oven. Meanwhile, cook sausage in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high until no longer pink, 6 to 8 minutes, breaking it into small pieces. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels. Without wiping skillet, add 2 tablespoons of the oil to drippings in skillet. Add sliced onions and ½ teaspoon of the salt; cook over medium, stirring often, until onions are golden brown and tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Combine kale, basil, Parmesan, garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons of the oil, and remaining ¼ teaspoon salt in a food processor. Process until smooth, stopping to scrape down sides, about 30 seconds.
- Heat a 12-inch, cast-iron skillet over medium for 2 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to skillet; swirl to coat. Sprinkle skillet with cornmeal. Stretch or roll dough into a 14-inch circle, and carefully place in hot skillet, pressing onto bottom and up sides. Increase heat to medium-high; cook until dough begins to bubble, 2 to 3 minutes. Working quickly, spread kale pesto over bottom of crust; top with sausage, onions, mozzarella and feta. Sprinkle with crushed red pepper. Brush exposed crust edges with remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Place skillet in preheated oven on middle rack, and bake until cheeses are melted and crust is golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes.