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Brassicas

Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

Brassicas – the cruciferous vegetables of the cabbage family – made a long and fruitful journey from the scraggly sea kale of their ancestors; today they provide us with some of our healthiest, easiest and most versatile crops, bred for their leaves (cabbage, kale, bok choi), roots (kohlrabi), flowers (broccoli, cauliflower) seeds (mustard) and buds (Brussels sprouts).

Such crops particularly suit Ireland, as they like lots of sun and water but not too much warmth – our summers, in other words. Moreover, many of them continue to produce throughout the year, as our kale does. Thus, in our garden cabbages comprise about a third of our crop, and we’ve been gathering them in and using or preserving them for the last month.

One of the easiest ways of making cabbage, of course, is in colcannon: all you need is a cabbage, an onion, and a potato. Boil some potatoes until soft in the middle, and while they’re boiling dice some onions and chop up a cabbage – I dice my onions about a centimetre on the side and my cabbage about three centimetre chunks, so that the onions will cook faster, but it’s up to you.

Once the potatoes are boiled and out of the water you take a pan, coat the bottom with a thin layer of oil, put on medium heat and throw in the onions. Cook about a minute and then throw in the cabbage, and cook for a few minutes or until the onions are golden-brown and the cabbages cooked through. In the few minutes that they will take to cook, mash the potatoes.

Next, chop up about 20 grams of parsley, wash and chop finely, and throw into the pan to cook for a moment. Finally, add the mash and mix it all together for a meal rich in vitamins, mostly vegetables but with some potato to hold it together.

One of the best brassicas this time of year, of course, are Brussels sprouts, which in our garden have been less vulnerable to pests than other cabbages -- perhaps because they are raised above mud-level. We are just harvesting the last of ours, but you can harvest them any time from autumn to spring, making them ideal for keeping your family in fresh vegetables during the winter months.

Many people boil the goodness out of Brussels sprouts, so one of the best ways to cook them is to cut the larger ones in half, boil some water, set them in for exactly three minutes, and then add to the rest of the meal separately.

If you want a new way to cook Brussels sprouts that allows the best flavour and avoids overcooking, try this recipe I used on my own. You will need:
300g Brussels sprouts
200g leeks
50g beetroot
One strip of bacon
Five cloves of garlic
10g butter
Chinese five-spice powder
Vegetable stock cube

Boil some water, cut the large Brussels sprouts in half, and put them in for three minutes – you want to flash-boil them, take the boiling water out and put in a bit of cold water to stop the cooking process. Then you take a strip of rashers (bacon), cut it into pieces about a centimetre across, and fry them in a pan. 

While that is frying, chop the leeks into one-centimetre pieces (make sure to wash them well first!) and slice some mushrooms half a centimetre across. Take 20g of beetroot and cut into cubes half a centimetre across. Finally, mince some garlic or chop it very finely. When the rasher pieces are cooked just enough to be edible but not yet firm, put in the mushrooms, leeks and beetroot. Sautee these together for a few minutes, then add the minced garlic and sautee for another minute or so.

Dissolve a vegetable stock cube in about 20 ml of boiling water, and mix well. Add that to the mix with about 10 ml of lemon juice, so the mixture begins to sautee for a minute. Add a dash of five-spice powder; it’s available at most supermarkets, a mix of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and fennel seeds. Finally, add the Brussels sprouts and mix it all together. The result should be savoury, garlicky, tangy and just a bit spicy.

The cabbage you don’t use, of course, you should preserve through the winter, and the classic way of preserving cabbage, though, is by pickling it, either through the European method of sauerkraut, or through its spicier Asian version of kim chee.

To make sauerkraut, find a cylindrical container and a lid slightly smaller across than the container, to that it can slide down the interior with little air in-between – the cabbage has to be squashed down in salt water away from oxygen, but air still has to escape. Alternately, you could use a mayonnaise or other glass jar, stuff with sauerkraut to the rim and leave the lid on, securely but not tightly. Finely shred a cabbage and put a few handfuls of the shredded cabbage in the container, and pound it down with something heavy like a rolling pin.

Then sprinkle some salt onto the cabbage – about 50 g to the kilo – and repeat the process with another few handfuls until your container is full. Then fill the container with water until it just covers the top of the cabbage/salt mix. Put the lid on and place the container someplace warm to ferment. The cabbage should begin to ferment right away, and gradually fill with water that escapes from the cabbage. It will gradually turn from cabbage to sauerkraut over about a month, but you can dig in at any point, eat some and put the rest back. Just make sure to keep the cabbage away from oxygen.

Kim chee works in much the same way, but soaking the cabbage overnight in a salt brine – I use 50g of salt per kilo of cabbage – and the next morning draining it.

Then you rinse it and mix in a spicy paste, often with slivers of carrots or radishes, before pounding it into jars and leaving a lid on loosely.
My paste contained 10g ginger, 50g garlic, 20g hot pepper flakes, and 20g fish sauce for two kilos of cabbage.

With no electricity or technology, sauerkraut and kim chee allow you to have vitamin-rich vegetables all through the winter, straight from the pantry, until next year’s garden comes alive again.

Top photo: Red cabbage from our garden

Bottom photo: My kim chee.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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