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Originally published Friday, April 26, 2013 at 12:05 PM

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When the seed-heads of winter crops bloom, eat up

The flowering seed-heads of kale, cabbage, collards, mustard, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and other bolting brassicas have got a whole lot of delicious going on.

Seattle Times food writer

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APRIL SHOWERS bring May flowers, but meantime, you might keep your eyes open for a bouquet of first-of-the-season greenery that looks like broccoli raab and cooks like broccoli raab, but isn't that at all.

What it is depends on who's doing the growing. And what it's called depends on who's doing the talking.

I'm talking about the flowering seed-heads of kale, cabbage, collards, mustard, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and other bolting brassicas, found in early spring at your local farmers market.

Whatever you call them, these overwintered vegetables have got a whole lot of delicious going on.

"I call them broccolini," said Nate O'Neil of Skagit Valley's Frog Song Farm when he introduced me to his red cabbage shoots a few years back, swiftly acknowledging he was telling a little white lie. They were not Broccolini-with-an-uppercase-B, though they do a great stand-in for that trademark cross between broccoli and Chinese kale.

Depending on the mother plant, he explained, each crop-top offers its own distinctive flavor: red cabbage is a sweeter version of its cabbage head, mustard is spicy, lacinato kale reminiscent of asparagus. I've been buying them ever since.

Luke Woodward of Carnation's Oxbow Farm calls his greens rapini, though they're not that, either. Unlike the broccoli bred for its crowning glory, rapini (aka broccoli raab) is bred for its shoots and more closely related to the turnip.

At Oxbow, "rapini grows all over the farm," Woodward says. "It's good cover crop to protect the soil, and if the plants survive the winter, you'll get a secondary crop."

Talk about a win-win. We get the spring's first harvest. Farmers get a few bucks a bunch and Seattle-area chefs get something local to boost their seasonal menus.

Farm-to-table advocates like Lark's John Sundstrom welcome the arrival of these early bloomers.

By the end of a long, dark winter "most of the farmers' lists are bare bones," he admits — which made Oxbow's dino-kale sprouts (his moniker) a bright spot on the menu when it turned up in March. Blanched or braised, the greens are a spring fling for customers fatigued by winter staples like carrots and potatoes.

Even more fun than eating them in restaurants is growing your own, says Northwest gardening guru Willi Galloway, author of "Grow Cook Eat: A Food Lover's Guide to Vegetable Gardening," who makes the most of "kale flower buds" and "mustard-green flower buds" (her term for brassica sprouts).

"People have this mindset of growing food for a single crop," says Galloway. "But you can use the leaves, the stems and the flowers of these edible extras. So when the buds or flowers appear, don't toss the plants onto the compost pile, she implores.

Wait a winter. And take a cue from the bees. They love brassica flowers because "they have a lot of pollen and nectar. They taste sweet and also spicy." Then take a page from Galloway's book:

Brassicas gone to flower? Snip off the blossoms and toss them in a salad. Got a tender shooter? Stir-fry with garlic and olive oil, and spritz with fresh lemon. Making pasta? Toss your new best bud in with the boiling pasta and blanch the greens before draining.

As my Frog Song farmer told me when he turned me on to the stuff: "This time of year, it's one of the most nutrient-rich things you can eat."

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times' food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com. Erika Schultz is a Times staff photographer.

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