Cabbage Patch Meals

Cruciferous vegetables add flavor, nutrition and a “bite” to meal service.

By 
Pamela Parseghian, Contributing Food Writer

Brussels Sprouts Salad from Maine Central Institute.

Crucifer may rhyme with Lucifer, but there’s nothing devilish about the huge family of vegetables that includes cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. In fact, some research indicates cruciferous vegetables may have lifesaving properties.

“The vegetables have sulfur and [cancer researchers] think they may help with neutralizing carcinogenic compounds,” says Lisa Eberhart, R.D., dietitian for North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. “Plus, they are high in nutrients and low in calories. A mass of greens will boil down and not be calorie dense. Kale is really trending. For a half a cup of kale it’s about 18 calories.”

Eberhart says that while the term cruciferous isn’t commonly used, the vegetables are plentiful on menus. “I’m the only one I know who even knows that word,” she says, “but in the South we use a lot of cabbage. We put slaw on almost all barbecue sandwiches. It’s just not barbecue if it doesn’t have slaw.”

Baked cauliflower and cheese is one of the most popular dishes at an “athletes’ table” that is designed for sports-minded students. “It’s one of the things that they request,” Eberhart says.

NC State’s vegetarians give high marks on comment cards for a broccoli tofu that highlights baked tofu and Asian flavors, such as sweet Thai chili sauce, soy sauce and sesame oil.
Brussels sprouts were a tough sell at the university, Eberhart notes, until the staff started roasting a frozen product this fall. Even then, students needed a little persuasion to try them.

“We had samples being given out by attractive coeds, and [then] people tried them,” Eberhart says, adding that student acceptability of the vegetable has increased. “The 18- to 22-year-old students are really experimental,” Eberhart adds. “So we want to expose them. My major job is getting students to expand their culinary choices.”

The non-meat option: At Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., Beth Yesford, senior director of food and nutrition, tries to offer at least one non-meat dish every day, and many feature crucifers. For a creative take on stuffed cabbage, for example, the hospital’s kitchen staff combines cooked whole-wheat couscous, mint and feta cheese instead of the traditional meat filling. The feta, along with the couscous, binds the filling, so it remains cohesive when served. The rolls simmer in a housemade tomato sauce seasoned with cinnamon and red wine vinegar.

The dish is very popular and it also fits into Yesford’s successful 500-for-$5 promotion, which offers dishes that have 500 or less calories for $5 each.

Diners often don’t think of cruciferous vegetables as being exciting, but some operators are finding ways to spice up these healthful veggies. In Milpitas, Calif., at Cisco’s Paradise Café, Bon Appétit chef Alex Olson has had great success with caramelized cauliflower. Olson seasons small florets with hot pepper, parsley, shallots, garlic, butter and lemon, then serves it with delicate flavored proteins, such as chicken or mild fish. On a typical day the chef serves 60 to 70 orders of the cauliflower side.

“If you make those vegetables interesting, customers tear them up,” Olson says. But it can be technically challenging to cook so much at a large operation, he adds, so he pan-fries the florets in many nonstick pans all at once.

“I get a bunch of sauté pans going,” Olson says. “I just cover the stove and let it rip.” To finish the side, he simply adds a touch of butter to keep it light.

“I don’t do much fatty food anymore,” Olson adds, in order to keep the food healthful. And he offers Cisco employees dishes that help maintain energy levels rather than making them sluggish after a meal.

“We don’t want to put [the staff] to sleep when they have to go back to work” after eating at the cafeteria. “I try to put a lot of vegetables on the menu.”

Broccoli’s kid appeal: At Kimball Union Academy, a coed boarding and day school in Meriden, N.H., the culinary team “utilizes a lot of vegetables that are on the cruciferous list,” says Steven George, director of dining services for Flik Independent School Dining at the account. Of the large crucifer family, George’s most popular option is broccoli. The vegetable is primarily cooked by the students themselves in stir-fries at a do-it-yourself wok station.

When the young people pick out and add the broccoli themselves, they often use more, George says. He also features broccoli in a sweet-and-sour tofu salad with Himalayan red rice, Thai chili paste and ginger.

“We have a large Asian population, and they seem to like that salad a lot,” George adds. “For kids who are adventurous, it goes over pretty well.” The key part of getting the kids to increase consumption of healthful foods is to bury unpopular good-for-you ingredients, rather than make them the focus of a dish, he adds.