January food superheroes: kale & cabbage
Until quite recently, cabbage was a Cinderella veg. But now kale and other cabbages are getting their highly deserved moment in the sun, as this group of nutritious and delicious vegetables is in vogue. Treat them right, and you’ll banish memories of stinky cabbage forever.
Food family – cruciferous vegetables:
- The ‘cruciferous’ vegetables get their name from the cross, or crucifer, shape of their flowers. They are also part of the brassica or ‘mustard’ family of plants. Cabbage is the daddy of them all, and has been used for 4,000 years or more.
Nutritionally speaking, these vegetables are truly heroic: low in calories, but packed with vitamins, fibre, and nutrients. On a Fast Day, they’re filling and also incredibly versatile, making brilliant replacements for starchier foods.
- Kale is very high in lutein, which protects the eyes from damage. One serving a week is enough to help protect against glaucoma.
- All cabbages are good sources of prebiotics, which help the gut stay healthy.
- Beneficial nutrients and compounds In this group of vegetables, these are too numerous to mention, but they include high levels of vitamin A, C and K, B-vitamins, minerals, iron/folate and fibre. They also contain some protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Glucosinates Many of the potential cancer- and inflammation-fighting elements are linked to glucosinates, the same compounds that give them their spicy, almost bitter taste. This family of vegetables offers protection against numerous cancers, including breast, lung, colon, liver, cervix and prostate.
- Reduced oxidative stress and other benefits This stress is caused by ‘free radicals’ and reducing them may also cut the risk of certain cancers: one study showed that eating these vegetables daily cuts the stress, especially if they’re eaten raw or lightly steamed or cooked (which, luckily, is when they’re at their tastiest).
What’s not to love?
- Bitterness These vegetables taste much more bitter to some people than others, and it’s all down to genes. ‘Tasters’ may eat less of this kind of veg, and so miss out on the benefits. If you’ve experienced this, try blending or pairing with milder vegetables.
- Thyroid problems In some animal studies, heavy consumption of cruciferous vegetables has been linked to insufficient thyroid production, so check with your doctor if you have thyroid issues (I do, but have been cleared to eat and enjoy them).
How to buy and store:
- Buy in season if you can: or try pickled kimchi and sauerkraut, both made from cabbage and jam-packed with gut-friendly bacteria. Frozen vegetables are an option but they do lose their crunchiness: a mix like bubble and squeak can be better.
- Cabbage and kale Avoid limp leaves or discolouration.
- Try different varieties and colours – the cabbages have very different flavours and textures, and kale comes in different colours. Cavolo nero is a real favourite of mine – dark and delicious.
Cooking with kale & cabbage:
- Chopping or mincing This actually helps release the beneficial compounds, so preparing vegetables this way can help make nutrients more available to the body. There are also benefits in letting them ‘sit’ for several minutes once chopped and before cooking.
- Avoid boiling Boiling is bad news, both for the nutrients and for your kitchen. Those sulphurous smells, and soggy textures, are unpleasant.
- Cook lightly Serving them raw, steamed, microwaved or stir-fried preserves the nutrients. In fact, steaming can actually make the nutrients more available to your body.
- Adding lemon (or other vegetables with vitamin C) to brassicas helps the body absorb iron from the vegetables.