Q&A with Laura Russell, author of Brassicas
It’s not exactly a secret that for a lot of folks, broccoli isn’t much of a treat. Neither are Brussels sprouts. Or cabbage. But when so many of us grew up identifying these veggies as the vile piles of odorous, off-colored greenish mush that stood between us and dessert, hard feelings are justifiable.
At least they were justifiable until the brassica genus stepped into the culinary limelight in recent years. These nutrition powerhouses are no longer merely accepted for their vitamin content, but celebrated for their depth of flavor and versatility. In professional kitchens across the country, Brussels sprouts dawn delightfully charred outer leaves and offer robust caramelized flavor, while thick slabs of cauliflower take center plate as hearty and vibrant “steaks.” There is truly something magical afoot.
Recipe developer and cookbook author Laura Russell aims to bring that magic to home cooks of all levels with her newest cookbook, Brassicas. The stunning collection of 80 recipes is available for purchase today. Preluding Brassica’s release, Russell was gracious enough to share a recipe from its pages, as well as a few thoughts about her ongoing love affair with food.
CL: I read that your interest in food and cooking began "with a single contraband burner smuggled into your dorm room." Did you, at any point during college, consider (or daydream) about a culinary career?LR: As college progressed, I definitely became more and more interested in the idea of food as a career. I started out using cooking as more of a stress reliever and a procrastination technique, but eventually grew to love the process of cooking and, most of all, the social aspect of bringing people together at the table. Right around graduation time, I floated the idea of culinary school to my parents and I thought my father might keel over on the spot. It took me a few years to save the funds, but eventually I got there.
CL: What is the biggest change in your relationship with food since then? And are there any constants that have remained the same?LR: My relationship with food has certainly evolved more than I could have anticipated. When I was younger, my focus was on cooking food that tasted great, period. I had little concern for nutrition or health issues. Now, I recognize food as the greatest vehicle we have for controlling our own wellness. As my awareness increased, so did my repertoire. Now I cook foods that are both healthy and delicious. It’s not only possible, it’s my new normal.
At the core, however, my reasons for cooking remain the same. Food comforts. Food brings people together. Cooking is the ultimate expression of love and friendship. Nourishing people makes me happy.
CL: Okay, now to the book. Following your first Asian-inspired gluten-free cookbook, where did the inspiration for this second book, Brassicas, come from?LR: Writing about brassicas has been on my mind for quite a while, probably even since before I wrote The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen. All of my favorite vegetables are brassicas, and I’ve always appreciated what a wide spectrum of flavors they represent. I realize that not everyone feels the same way, though (there are still plenty of cabbage and broccoli haters out there), likely because many people haven’t learned the best ways to handle them. Vegetables like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are finally getting a chance to shine because creative chefs are finding ways to highlight their intrinsic flavors instead of masking them. I want to teach home cooks to do the same.
CL: Beyond the obvious, is there any central theme or style that carries throughout all of the recipes in the book?LR: There’s a lot of conflicting nutritional information out there, and sifting through it has become endlessly complicated. But one generally accepted directive stands out: Eat more vegetables. Seems easy enough, yet most people I talk to simply don’t know where to begin. It starts in the kitchen. I created these recipes with simplicity in mind: straightforward directions meant to be used as a teaching tool, standard grocery-store ingredients, and common substitution options for the few brassicas that may be hard to find. I want you to cook, and I want to help make that process seamless.
CL: If you were forced to choose, what would you say is your all-time favorite vegetable in the brassica genus? Why?LR: Unfair question. I fell in love with kohlrabi while developing recipes for the book, and it’s certainly a new favorite. I crave the bracing bitterness of broccoli rabe (rapini). In terms of overall versatility, though, I’d actually go with cauliflower. I toss florets with olive oil, salt, and cumin and roast them for a 12-minute side dish. Caramelizing cauliflower in a sauté pan with garlic and a dusting of Pecorino is another favorite. And when I’m looking to keep the carbs down, cauliflower makes a great substitute for potatoes in soups or gratins, and even stands in as “rice” beneath a saucy entrée.
CL: What are some ways you can easily go wrong with cooking brassicas?LR: The easiest way to go astray, especially when cooking broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, is boiling. I’m not saying there is no place on your table for simply boiled vegetables—it’s quick and easy—but boiling brassicas breaks down their cell walls faster and more aggressively than any other cooking method. This can produce unpleasant odors and also lead to overcooking. Plus, because boiled vegetables are cooked in a large quantity of water, they retain excess liquid after you drain them. So, if you do not pat them quite dry, they can have a watery taste.
CL: Anything you want us to know about the recipe you've shared?LR: I wanted to share one of my favorite recipes from the book, Mizuna Salad with Cumin-Roasted Cauliflower. If you haven’t tasted mizuna, it’s a very mild mustard green and it’s just fantastic in salads. In terms of availability, it is one of the more difficult brassicas to find, but spring is its ideal time. Check your local farmers’ market or even an Asian grocery. No worries if you can’t locate it, though. This unique salad, topped with cumin-roasted cauliflower, chopped dates, and honey-lemon vinaigrette, tastes just as great with baby arugula as it does with mizuna.
Mizuna Salad with Cumin-Roasted CauliflowerYou get a double dose of brassicas in this North African–inspired salad that calls for both mizuna and cauliflower. My hus-band loves mizuna, a mildly peppery salad green, so we tend to eat a ton of it when it shows up at the farmers’ market in early spring. If you cannot find it, baby arugula (another brassica) makes an ideal substitute. Don’t forget to add the dates; their honeyed sweetness creates a perfect balance of flavors with the cumin-laced cauliflower and greens. Find fresh dates in the produce section or dried chopped dates near the raisins. I like the taste of honey in the dressing, but for a vegan-friendly version, substitute agave nectar. SERVES 4
1 small head cauliflower, cored and cut into bite-size florets (about 4 cups)5 tablespoons olive oil (divided)3⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt (divided)1-3⁄4 teaspoons ground cumin (divided)1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice1 teaspoon honey1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper1 large bunch mizuna, large stems removed, or 1 (5-ounce) package baby arugula (about 12 cups loosely packed)4 fresh or dried dates, pitted and finely chopped (about 1⁄2 cup)
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Put the cauliflower on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1-1/2 teaspoons of the cumin, and toss to coat evenly, then spread in a single layer. Roast the cauliflower, stirring once or twice, for about 15 minutes, until golden brown and tender but not mushy. Taste a floret for doneness; larger florets may take slightly longer to cook.
2. While the cauliflower is roasting, make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, honey, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon cumin, and the pepper. Whisk in the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil.
3. In a serving bowl, combine the roasted cauliflower, mizuna, and dates, drizzle with the dressing, and toss to coat evenly. Taste and add additional salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately.
Reprinted with permission from Brassicas by Laura B. Russell, copyright (c) 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.