Grim's Grub: The shapeshifting vegetable

One vegetable family has been developed in so many different ways, it's almost impossible to imagine they are all related.

Background of healthy fresh cruciferous vegetables; broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts kale and kohlrabi.

There are certain food families that, thanks to nature, geographical differences and cultivation practices, have spawned relatives that we use in cooking without knowing they are related.

Take a look, for example, at how many spices in your cupboard are in or are related to the mint family.

One family is so pervasive globally that it could be considered a sort of linchpin to countless food traditions and cultures. This is the cruciferous vegetables, named that way because the early seedling stage of these plants starts with a four leaf pattern that reminded horticulturalists of the crucifix.

This group (Cruciferae) includes cresses, radishes, mustards, arugula, turnips, rapeseed (canola oil), all cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi and collard greens.


Cruciferae are almost impossible to escape in the culinary landscape, so long as you include vegetables in your diet. This group includes cresses, radishes, mustards, arugula, turnips, rapeseed (canola oil), all cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi and collard greens.

Some cross breeding is introducing flavorful varieties even now, including kai lan and broccolini.

It's amazing to review how this same family of vegetables can produce edible leafy vegetables, bulbous roots, juicy leaves, seed heads, oilseeds, stems and seasonings. It's downright crazy to try to iron out how long each has been around, so let's get crazy.

Leafy species like kale, collard greens, cresses and mustard greens may have had some cultivation to develop their flavors, shapes and textures. However, being closest to the original wild species, many of them may have developed semi-naturally thanks to geographical location. Leafy greens in this family still occur in the wild throughout the world today.

Broccoli was created through selective harvest of large flower clusters from a kale-like member of the family starting in the 1500s.

Cauliflower was developed in the same century by selectively harvesting broccoli heads with a recessive mutant gene.

Brussels sprouts are believed to have been consumed as far back as the early 1200s near Brussels, though they were not described in writing until 1587. They were developed by selecting plants with smaller blanched buds with young, tender leaves.

In the early years, they would likely have developed with fewer buds on each plant and were likely larger, though over many years genetic lines that produced more buds, compact buds and smaller buds became the norm.


Mustard seeds have been uncovered in stone age settlements. Over time, however, different cultivation techniques and geographical growth areas have produced mustard seeds with different flavor profiles, colors and growth habits.

Radishes have been tracked back to the third century B.C., when they were developed in Southeast Asia, though horticulturalists believe other regions of the continent developed other varieties of radish independently.

Radishes were one of the first plants introduced to the Americas by settlers. They range from very small to 3 feet in length. Some varieties have been developed to bolt to seed quickly and the seed pods have been selectively bred to be pleasantly eaten like pea pods.

Cabbage is believed to have been domesticated in Europe before 1,000 B.C. Because early cruciferous vegetables were more akin to kale than cabbage, farmers likely developed the cabbage we know today by selectively breeding plants that produced blanched (or tightly layered) leaf structures.

In the beginning, they would have looked more like an inverted, closed umbrella and less like a large ball. Subsequent cultivation resulted in more compact, larger cabbage heads.

Rapeseed (oil seeds) are among the oldest plants cultivated by humanity. It was used 4,000 years ago in India and 2,000 years ago in China and Japan, though in some parts of the world it was not immediately used as a cooking oil, but a lamp oil.

Broad, mainstream production of marketable canola oil came after the University of Manitoba bred two varieties together to create a product with less green chlorophyll coloring and a more neutral flavor.

Kohlrabi was developed from a wild cabbage called the marrow cabbage, which originated near the English Channel coast. Unlike turnips and radishes, these plants were selectively bred before the 16th century to enhance their larger bulbous stems.


What likely began more like a thick piece of asparagus today is more akin to a softball.

Steamed cabbage and bacon.

Steamed Cabbage and Bacon

  • 1-2 slices thick bacon, cubed (or diced if you like them small)
  • 1/2 head cabbage, cored and cut into four wedges
  • Water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Add water to a large pot to just below the level of the bottom of the steamer you will use. Bring to a boil. Carefully place the cabbage pieces cut side up on your steamer and then place it into the pot and cover. This will steam for about six minutes before you need to flip the pieces and steam for another 5 minutes.
In a pan, sauté the bacon over medium low heat until it's almost done. Once the edges have begun to brown but the bacon still has pink centers, remove it from the heat. Once the cabbage is ready, remove it to a baking pan and drizzle the bacon grease over the cabbage before sprinkling the cooked bacon evenly.

Broil in your oven about five minutes or until the top layer is slightly browned. Serve with salt and pepper.

Brussels sprouts with bacon.


Asian Inspired Brussels Sprouts

  • 1/4 cup hoisin sauce
  • 1 cup brussels sprouts, sliced in half
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 2 slices of bacon, cubed

In a wok or frying pan over medium heat, fry your bacon until just about done, then remove the bacon but leave the grease. Add the sesame oil and bring up to medium high heat before placing all the sprouts cut side down in the pan. Allow these to fry in the oils until they have begun to brown, then flip each with tongs.
Once the outer leaves begin to crisp, you may either stir or toss them with the oil in the pan to coat. Remove the sprouts and oils to a heat safe bowl and add the hoisin sauce before tossing together until well coated. Serve while hot.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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