Cole (cruciferous brassica) crops are great for healthy communities. And they're fun to prepare, too.
You can learn all about them April 2 at the Maui County Agricultural Festival, set from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Maui Tropical Plantation.
But let's step back for a moment and consider our ancestors, who followed a simple diet dependent on what the land could provide. They were skilled farmers who sustained intensive agricultural systems that could nourish extended communities with vegetables, starches and proteins. Even today, while balancing a role in the world's larger global economy, Maui can and should be proud that agriculture remains a vital element in the structure of its cultural, environmental and socioeconomic landscape. Modern researchers recommend a balanced, varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, plus whole grains and lean proteins for optimum health.
While for many of us adopting such a diet requires a change in habits, it is entirely within our reach and surprisingly simple. We only need to look around and see what Maui provides in crops and products from grass-fed foraging animals.
Our individual and communal health anchors around the food that Maui grows. It is up to each one of us to make that connection with agriculture, though. Our farmers grow a gorgeous spectrum of colorful produce. They bring to market asparagus and strawberries as well as nutritious starches, such as kalo and sweet potato. They also offer less glamorous crops, such as coles. Few of us realize that these are the bread and butter of diversified commercial agriculture from Maui's past and are still present today.
Often overlooked, coles are produced in abundance, and keep numerous farmers and farmlands productive. They offer an easy introduction to Maui agriculture and deserve attention for the well-being of the Valley Isle.
Coles are Maui's top-volume crops, and include head cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga and turnips.
Head cabbage belonged among the 19 top-producing vegetables in the state in 2008, delivering 9,400 pounds on 410 acres at a farm value of $2.8 million. Annual Maui production of cabbage is 3.3 million pounds on 110 acres and worth $990,000. Because it transports well, head cabbage is a key crop in Maui's agricultural viability. Equally important, cruciferous foods thrive on the cool volcanic slopes of Kula and are undisputedly healthful. They are packed with phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and fiber, all associated with a reduced risk of various chronic diseases. Coles contain specific compounds that may decrease our risk of getting certain cancers and reduce free radicals.
Coles are also absolutely delicious when prepared with a little savvy. Try them caramelized, simmered or chopped in salads with a healthful vinaigrette. Give them zing with sweet-pungent spices, such as nutmeg, ginger and black pepper.
One way to bring out the nutritious benefits and delicious flavor of coles is through natural fermentation. Cultured vegetables long have been a staple around the world and now are picking up pace. According to the Mayo Clinic, cultured veggies' microorganisms, or probiotics, may help with digestion and offer protection from harmful bacteria; there's evidence they may help in strengthening the immune system.
As for me? Just writing this gives me a chance to recommit to eating more coles and in many more ways. Looking after our health implies buying and eating what Maui grows. But to do so, we must be familiar with Maui's humble, honorable coles.
* Warren K. Watanabe is a third-generation Kula farmer who serves as executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau. The latter 501(c)(5) nonprofit is an organization of farms and ranch families, agricultural industries and associated organizations dedicated to supporting agriculture in Maui County. Na Moku Ola means "The Islands of Life," with special focus on Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe, and the ideals of health and vigor we pursue.