The Empire of the Brassicaceae strikes back

I was cutting up a couple of broccoli crowns this evening, and my dog Penny was lurking at my feet, expecting to be tossed several green florets, as is her due. She and her canine partner-in-crime Bailey are veggie-loving dogs. They’ll happily devour not just broccoli, but also baby carrots, zucchini slices, pieces of cauliflower, raw and cooked green beans, peas, sweet potato fries, cucumber chunks, and more.

But my mind was on half a dozen different things, and the knife slipped, and cut my thumb. That should remind me to practice mindfulness next time I slay a broccoli, but I’ll forget. Anyway, it was probably karmic payback for all the destruction I wrought earlier in the day on the broccoli’s distant relatives, the hairy bittercress infesting the yard.

Bittercress, also known as cardamine, is a member of the vast empire of the cabbage family, which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, mustard, radishes, turnips, watercress , beets, chard and many more. I like many of them, but the hairy bittercress is something else altogether.

Know thine enemy

Most people don’t notice bittercress, unless they happen to be gardeners or lawn fanatics. It’s a small, unobtrusive-looking plant, with a central stem (or two, or four, or a dozen) rising from a rosette of basal leaves that are usually a dull green, sometimes dark purple. These stems are topped by tiny white four-petaled flowers smaller than peppercorns, and they are the first things to bloom in late winter, long before the snowdrops and crocuses have risen from the thawing earth. These tiny flowers quickly go to seed, forming brown pods less than a centimeter long. And when something touches them, they explode and scatter seeds all over the place. Try to weed them out, and they spit seeds defiantly the moment you touch them.

No matter how many of the dratted things I yank out, more appear, seemingly out of nowhere. I swear they send out secret signals alerting every other bittercress within a given distance to send up more stems and start flowering like mad. As though there were some sort of sinister sentience among them, with but a single goal: to take over the garden, then the lawn, the neighborhood and ultimately the entire world, mwa-ha-ha-ha!


I didn’t know until I looked cardamine up in Wikipedia today that some even consider the wretched weed edible. No, thank you! My Euell Gibbons days of stalking edible wild plants are over.

I can still point out various things in the back yard and tell someone whether they can be eaten, and some day when civilization as we know it collapses, this knowledge may come in handy. But my ventures into weed cuisine have generally not been worth the effort.

Except perhaps  for that time in the 1970s when I proved to my co-workers that I could make lunch from the weeds in the parking lot. That was back when I worked at the Somerset Messenger-Gazette, a large weekly paper serving Somerset County, N.J., now defunct like most of the newspapers for which I’ve worked. (And it wasn’t my fault they died, honest.) But I digress, as usual.

Parking lot lunch

Armed with a skillet, knife, an egg, cooking oil, bread crumbs and a few other items, I went to work on the stems of some plant that grew in the lot. Cardoon, I think. I battered and fried them, and I have to admit they tasted slightly of motor oil from the cars. None of the folks in the editorial department dared to sample them, but the looks on their faces were priceless. They kept eyeing me all afternoon to see if I would suddenly collapse, frothing at the mouth, but they were sorely disappointed.


I’d far rather cook and eat pasta broccoli the way they used to make it at Doll’s Restaurant in New Brunswick, NJ, seasoned with fennel seeds, garlic and red pepper flakes. This is my comfort food, and I made it tonight for my 60th birthday dinner. We’ll go out for the vegetarian buffet at our favorite Indian place this weekend, but tonight I wanted pasta broccoli.

Broccoli is kind of a funny thing with me. I don’t believe I tasted fresh broccoli, cooked or raw, until my late teens, and it was love at first taste. My mother started using the dismal frozen stuff at some point, but like other Estonians, she was unfamiliar with broccoli when I was a kid. It didn’t grow there — too cold or something. There wasn’t even a word for it in Estonian, unlike cauliflower, which they call lillekapsas – flower cabbage.

Regular cabbage, one of the staple foods of Estonia, is called kapsas, a word derived from the Russian kapusta, which ultimately comes from the Latin word for head, caput.

Ah, sauerkraut

Estonians raise and cook cabbage in many ways, but their favorite dish is sauerkraut. They call it hapukapsas. It’s sometimes prepared with barley, and is sweeter than the stuff Americans pile on their hot dogs, because we rinse the pickled cabbage thoroughly before cooking. My mom made great sauerkraut, but I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate it when I was young; I refused to eat it.

Today I rarely prepare sauerkraut, and when I do, it never comes out like hers. My brother’s version is wonderful. If I get up to New Jersey during the summer when there’s some big bash going on at the Lakewood Estonian House, I always get a bowl of the wonderful hot sauerkraut soup they sell in the kitchen. It’s unbeatable, even on a simmering August night when it’s 90 degrees outside..

Now that Estonia is independent, they have access to many more foods and cuisines than they did in the Soviet era. And I see that they have finally gotten into broccoli and given it an Estonian name: brokoli. Nice and simple. I found the word in a recipe book brought home from my last visit there.

Do they know it’s brokoli?

I wonder what, if anything, Estonians call broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, the vegetable that heralds spring in the supermarkets? Do they even know what it is? It’s actually more closely related to turnips than to broccoli.

I was introduced to this deliciously bitter green by my first mother-in-law, who was Italian. She rinsed it off, cut out the toughest stems, and steamed it slowly in a covered pan with only the water that clung to the leaves. The stuff was amazing; after eating it you could feel the vitamins coursing through the veins. Green Geritol, if you will.

And I’ll definitely need that green energy to tackle the rapidly advancing hordes of hairy bittercress that are silently marching across the lawn, even as we sleep,  preparing to conquer us all.

3 comments on “The Empire of the Brassicaceae strikes back

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