Have you eaten a brassica lately? Do you know what brassicas actually are?

A range of commonly eaten vegetables are members of the brassica family (more correctly the family Brassicaceae) including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts.

Leaves, flowers, seeds, roots……

An interesting fact about brassicas is that almost all parts of the plants can be edible including:

LEAVES – Cabbage, Kale, Asian Greens

FLOWERS – Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts

SEEDS – Canola

ROOTS – Turnip, Swede

As a rule, the leaves are large, often waxy with a whitish bloom, and come in a range of colours from shades of green to deep red. The flowers are 4-petalled, usually yellow or white.

Originally from temperate coastal regions of Europe and North Africa, brassicas grow well on a wide range of soils from light sand to heavier clays. Soils with high organic matter content give the best yields. The soil pH should be in the range 6.0–6.5 for ideal growth. Cabbages are less demanding than cauliflowers, and good crops can be produced on most soils.

Tonnes and tonnes of brassicas

Brassicas are such an important vegetable that Ausveg lists three of them in the top 10 vegetables produced in Australia: Broccoli – 75,000t; Cabbage – 73,000t; Cauliflower – 67,000t. Although to put these tonnages into perspective they are dwarfed by potato production at 1,333,000t and tomatoes at 426,000t.

While Australian broccoli production is only around 5 per cent as large as potato production by volume, it is nearly 32 per cent as large when measured by value.

Brassicas are grown commercially in all Australian states. As an example, the largest areas of broccoli are in Queensland (19,371ha) and Victoria (16,336ha), with the other states making up the remaining 1,506ha (source ABS 2018/19). Because of the wide production area, ranging from the Atherton Tablelands, to southern WA and northern Tasmania, brassicas are produced and available all year round.

Alluvial soils on major river flats are excellent for brassica production, which is why areas such as the Lindenow Flats in Victoria and the Sydney Basin are major production areas. Good drainage is important, and soils that become waterlogged after heavy rain or irrigation are unsuitable.

Brussels sprouts – loved or loathed

While making up only a small area of brassicas grown in Australia, the humble brussels sprout (390ha) still produces around 7,290t and gets a pretty bad rap in the process.

Why ‘brussels’?

Like other cabbage species, the brussels sprout is a Mediterranean native that was cultivated in the 1200’s near its namesake city of Brussels, after being brought to Europe in the 5th Century – hence the name brussels sprout.

Health benefits

Consuming 1 cup of brussels sprouts will provide 195% of your daily recommended dose of vitamin K and 125% of vitamin C, plus 11g of carbohydrates and 4g of protein. If you choose the most-common method of cooking sprouts, which is steaming, this can actually have cholesterol-lowering properties.

With such great health benefits, why are brussels sprouts hated by so many people? The answer is in your genes, or precisely the TAS2R38 gene which controls whether we taste the chemical phenylthiourea (PTC), which has the unusual property that it either tastes very bitter or is virtually tasteless, depending on the genetic makeup of the taster. Fortunately this chemical isn’t usually found in the human diet, but it does exist to different degrees in all of the brassicas.

Bad smell and taste

Unfortunately for the brussels sprout, it not only tastes bitter to some people, it also smells bad, but why? As all good cooks know, boiling the sprout to within an inch of its life leaves it grey and sodden with an unpleasant, sulphur smell caused by the compound glucosinolate sinigrin which contains sulphur.

While the smell and taste of brussels sprouts puts many people off, it didn’t deter Swedish man Linus Urbanec who achieved the stomach-churning record of consuming 31 sprouts in 60 seconds!

Part of most diets

While not everyone will be familiar with the term brassica, or know all of the large number of mainstream and obscure vegetables in the brassica family, chances are you eat some of them most days. Given that three brassicas feature in the 10 top vegetables by tonnage, they form an extremely important part in the planting mix of many vegetable growers.

If you’re still a bit averse to tucking into the much maligned brussels sprouts, the following recipe may help!

Garlic & Parmesan Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Clean and trim the sprouts, then halve the larger ones. Leave smaller sprouts whole, but cut a cross symbol through the stem.  The stem is the toughest part of the brussels sprout and the cross allows them to cook at the same rate as the tender area.

Add the prepared brussels sprouts to a sheet pan.

Drizzle with olive oil.

Add thin-sliced garlic to the pan with the sprouts.

Grate Parmesan cheese and sprinkle evenly over the sprouts.

Season with salt and pepper – freshly ground is best.

Toss to evenly coat.

Roast until crisp and golden.