While harvesting the first of my lovely rutabagas (swede for European readers) this week, I was nagged by the thought that I should be eating the leaves rather than throwing them on the compost pile. An ancient inter-species cross between cabbage and turnips, it stood to reason that rutabaga leaves might taste pretty good. And what about Brussels sprouts leaves? Or broccoli leaves? Are they really as edible as some food bloggers say? The greens from closely related collards are packed with vitamins A, C, K and calcium, and the same is probably true of kohlrabi leaves, right? Obviously, a taste test was in order.
I began with sample leaves of six cultivated brassicas: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, kohlrabi and rutabaga. In all cases I gathered only young leaves from the centers of the plants. After washing the leaves clean, I coarsely chopped them and tasted each raw. I then simmered each sample in lightly salted water for three minutes. Two family members joined me in tasting and rating the samples, using a scale of 0 to 5, with 0 meaning spit-out terrible and 5 representing excellent eating. From best tasting to worst, here is what we found.
Best and Worst Tasting Brassica Leaves
Collards were included for comparison, because they are our favorite cooking green in the cabbage family. In my taste test, even the raw collards tasted sweet and tender, with a mild aftertaste. Cooked collards earned the highest score of 4.6, with pleased comments about their buttery, almost noodle-like texture.
Brussels sprouts provided beautiful small rosettes, which I cut from the tops of the plants to help hasten the growth of the sprouts on the main trunk. When raw, the Brussels sprout leaves looked, sliced, and tasted like cabbage. Roger was convinced he was eating cabbage when he tasted the cooked Brussels sprouts leaves, which earned an overall rating of 4. As further endorsement, the leftover sample disappeared when someone ate it for a snack. Note that we did not taste the older Brussels sprout leaves, which I had treated with Bt (a biological pesticide) to control cabbageworms, and twice sprayed with hot pepper brews to deter deer. For tasting purposes, they would not have furnished a fair sample.
Kohlrabi leaves had an assertive bite when tasted raw, but the bitterness disappeared in the cooked sample, which earned an overall rating of 3.6. The mild, grassy flavor of kohlrabi leaves was pleasant enough, but we were all puzzled by their dense, chewy texture. My daughter and I agreed that cooked kohlrabi leaves would work well in pureed soups, where texture is not an issue. You also could use kohlrabi leaves for stuffing, putting their substantial structure to good use.
Kale also tasted pretty good raw, but the short cooking time produced a fibrous sample that was tasty but not quite palatable. Still, the kale came in with a rating of 3.3, and we all agreed that it had great promise if given more time in the pot.
Rutabaga leaves gave off mustard oil fumes as I chopped them, and they smelled like turnip greens as they cooked. In the end, rutabaga leaves received a not-quite-passing grade of 2.6. One taster said they tasted like soap, and another had to gulp water to clear the intense cabbage punch they delivered.
Broccoli leaves were the biggest losers with an edibility rating of 0. The raw greens tasted too bitter to chew for more than a few seconds, and cooking only slightly tamed their flavor. Some varieties may taste better, but I shall henceforth consider broccoli as a stem and bud veggie only.
Several questions on the edibility of brassica leaves are settled for me now, and I will never again feel guilty about feeding rutabaga or broccoli leaves to my compost rather than my family. Yet kohlrabi leaves are definitely worth keeping, and the tender topknots from maturing Brussels sprouts are rare gourmet treats that should be reserved for the gardeners who grow them. Collards reign supreme in terms of eating quality, but close cousins in the cabbage clan give them plenty of good company.
By Barbara Pleasant