Panda: …native to China. Eats shoots and leaves.

I’d like to encourage you to relax and allow your brassicas to attempt to go to seed. When you are relaxed, you reap the rewards and so will wildlife. If you read on, I’ll explain why and give you some recipes as a bonus.

I’m sure I’m not unusual in my previous habit of seeing a brassica plant go past its prime and thinking: “Right, you’re coming out, I’m not using good organic energy to help you make seeds!”

Well this year I was deliberately laissez-faire. I’d sown very late and some cabbages had not developed well. Like the pandas, it felt endangered and so started to produce flowers so it could propagate the next generation of cabbages. I let them do this and harvested the shoots & leaves and they were delicious. A generous cabbagey flavour, crisp and fresh.

So inspired, I let other brassicas ‘bolt’ where they were occupying space I did not immediately need. I then harvested the flowers, shoots, leaves and, in the case of radishes, the seed pods.

The upshot of all this was that we had a much wider selection of leaves and shoots to eat in the early spring than would otherwise have been the case. I also like to metaphorically paint with food when preparing it. The different coloured shoots and flowers were a real boon to my palette.

The other benefit is for the wildlife. At a time of year when nectar is in short supply, the flowers of the brassicas provide a good supply for the early flying insects.

Two things you need to look out for. The first is insects who love to be on the shoots, so wash if you need to. Second, as the season goes on the shoots can get a bit hard and bitter as the plant matures. Just have a check for taste and if the shoot is not easy to cut with a small knife it’s probably too woody.

Here’s my handy list:

  • Cabbages, either ones that ‘haven’t worked’ or from the stump left when you cut a cabbage. Cut a cross in the stump with a clean, sharp knife and the cabbage will re-sprout from the cuts.

  • Chinese leaves and pak choi etc – treat as the cabbage and cross the stumps. Ones that have bolted produce spicy shoots and pretty flowers.

  • Kale – produces lovely shoots

  • Radishes – you can eat the leaves, flowers and seed pods

  • Mustards – we over winter mustards in our polytunnel. These eventually bolt in the spring and the shoots and flowers have an intense mustard flavour.

  • Salad rocket – the flowers and shoots are peppery hot, more so than the seasonal leaves

  • Swedes and turnips – produce edible leaves, great bitter mustard taste.

Here are two recipes to use your bonus harvest so, like the pandas, you too can eat shoots and leaves.

Quick Spicy Spaghetti
An ideal dish for the busy gardener, you can prepare this in the time the pasta takes to boil. I’ve given the quantities per person, they are very flexible.

75-100g dried spaghetti
Big handful brassica shoots & flowers, washed if necessary
1 (or more) clove of garlic, finely chopped
Fresh chilli, finely chopped, or dried chilli flakes (you’ll need to assess your own chillies for heat and use a quantity to suit your taste)
25g tinned anchovies
A generous glug of good flavoured olive oil about 60ml or so or more, to taste
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tbsp flat leaved parsley, chopped

You’ll need a generous sized saucepan to cook the pasta and a frying or sauté pan for the shoot sauce.

If you are not too fleet with your chopping and prepping get everything ready before you start. Otherwise, it’s possible to prep and cook this while the pasta boils.

Put your spaghetti on to boil in plenty of boiling salted water. The packet instructions on most spaghetti are rubbish and say to boil the life out of the stuff. I find most spaghetti cooks to nicely al dente (just firm in the middle) after 8 minutes fast boiling. Texture test the pasta as you cook by taking a sample bite.

While the pasta cooks, add a good glug of olive oil to your frying or sauté pan over a medium heat. Throw in the garlic, chilli and anchovies and stir. What you want is for the anchovies to start to melt and the garlic to take on a little colour without burning. Do this for about 4 minutes.

Then pop in your brassica shoots and stir/toss them in the flavoured oil. Add some more oil if you think it needs it. Allow the shoots to steam for 4 minutes.

When the pasta is done, drain it through a colander but not well. Make sure you leave some of the cooking water with the pasta to help with your sauce. Tip the vegetables and oil into the pasta, stir well to mix, season to taste with salt & pepper.

Serve into bowls and garnish with the parsley.

Dressed shoots
This is so simple I shouldn’t really call it a recipe. It’s ideal as antipasti, a snack, a warm side dish or allowed to cool as a salad. You can use it as a topping for bruschetta, crostini or pizza. ‘Nuff said.

Brassica shoots, try to get a good mix of colours
Extra virgin olive oil
Fresh lemon juice
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste

Simmer the shoots in a covered pan with the barest minimum of salted boiling water. You’ll only need a smidge in the bottom.

Drain the shoots well and pour on a glug of olive oil and a good sprinkling of lemon juice, season to taste. Have a taste of your creation and see if you need more of anything. Enjoy!