Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Broccoli

If there ever was a vegetable equivalent of cod liver oil, broccoli would be it. On the one hand, it’s a virtuous superfood, packed with disease-fighting antioxidants, a mother’s dream, keeping the doctor away. On the other hand, it’s the culinary equivalent of icky, especially when boiled to death, which has been the default preparation method for at least 30 years. Ahem, please pass the sulfur.

Given its nutritional prowess, broccoli deserves better than a pity party, or the cold shoulder. After all, if its cousin kale can get a sexy makeover, why not the tiny trees of the produce aisle? Let the reinvention begin.

Brief History

The story of broccoli is tied up with cabbage, its botanical grandmother, as well as its many brassica relatives, particularly cauliflower. Like cabbage, as my RFRN colleague Megan Saynisch writes, broccoli is native to the eastern Mediterranean. Many historians agree that broccoli’s point of origin extends from Asia minor to Cyprus and Crete. But how it morphed from leafy cabbage into sprouted and fully flowered stalks is up for grabs. Some historians believe that ancient Romans, when writing about the sprouting cymae, may have been referring to broccoli. 

In his cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, first century Roman gastronome Apicius includes recipes and seasoning variations for “cymas et cauliculos.”

As per this translation, Apicius recommended this preparation:
Boil the sprouts, season with cumin, salt, wine and oil; if you like add pepper, lovage, mint, rue, coriander; the tender leaves of the stalks stew in broth; wine and oil be the seasoning.

In his encyclopedic work, Historia Naturalis, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder devotes an entire chapter to “Cabbages; The Several Varieties of Them” that includes the curiously sprouting cymae:

“These sprouts, in fact, are small shoots thrown out from the main stem, of a more delicate and tender quality than the cabbage itself.”

Pliny notes that Apicius, who had an “exquisite palate” scorned the cymae but implies that was not the case for Drusus, emperor Tiberius’s son, who allegedly loved broccoli to such an excess he ate it exclusively for one month. 

Historians generally agree that broccoli stayed put in Italy for a good long time. It is said that France didn’t have its first taste until the mid 16th century, thanks to the doings of one Catherine d’Medici, who moved there from Italy to marry Henry II.

England wouldn’t dig its teeth into broccoli until the mid- to late 18th century, around the same time it hit colonial American shores. In the 1768 edition of The Gardeners Dictionary, Scottish botanist Philip Miller, who tended the Chelsea gardens in London, shared his preference for purple-headed Roman broccoli, which “(if well-managed) will have large heads, which appear in the center of the plants like clufters of buds.” He recommended peeling the stems “before they are boiled: thefe will be very tender and little inferior to Afparagus.” (sic)

On the other side of the Atlantic, botanist John Randolph expressed similarly reserved curiosity about broccoli. While serving as attorney general for the colony of Virginia, Randolph had an extensive garden said to have rivaled that of the Governor’s Palace, where a few different kinds of broccoli were grown. In his book, A Treatise on Gardening by a Citizen of Virginia, Randolph described his impressions of broccoli: “The stems will eat like asparagus and the heads like cauliflower.”

Nearby at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson imported broccoli seeds from Italy for his kitchen garden, as early as 1767, and grew it well into the early 1800s.

American interest in broccoli would remain flat until the 1920s, when a pair of Sicilian immigrant brothers cultivated the first commercial broccoli crops in California. By 1926, brothers Andrea and Stefano D’Arrigo shipped their first railroad car of broccoli to Boston, launching the advent of cross-country produce distribution and the Andy Boy brand of fresh vegetables. Their company, D’Arrigo Bros. Co., is one of the largest produce growers in the country.

Factual Nibbles

In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott devotes a chapter to broccoli, using it as a metaphor for listening to your intuition. 

“You need your broccoli in order to write well,” she argues.

President George H.W. Bush (George senior) will likely be remembered as this country’s most vociferous critic of broccoli. In 1990, the president banned broccoli from Air Force One and made this emotional display:

“And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli!''

In response, California broccoli farmers sent a reported 10 tons of broccoli to the White House, where broccoli-loving first lady Barbara Bush met the press and announced that most of it would be donated to local food banks. According to the political news site Smart Politics, the president mentioned the dreaded vegetable 70 times during his four-year term.

In the wake of the Bush broccoli brouhaha, The Topps Company, known for bubble gum and trading cards, released this spoof Wacky Package sticker in 1991.

So is broccoli a partisan vegetable or one that takes time to warm up to? When asked to state his favorite vegetable at the second annual Kids State Dinner this summer, President Obama said – you guessed it --  broccoli.

Cultivation

As mentioned earlier, broccoli is a member of the extensive Brassica family; its full botanical name is Brassica oleracea, var. cymosa. (Remember the cymae from ancient Roman times?) In addition to cauliflower, its close relatives include Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, kale and collard greens

California and Arizona are the country’s leading broccoli states, with California supplying 90 percent of this country’s haul. The 2010 harvest in California was valued at more than $600 million.  Frozen broccoli is big business too, accounting for about one-third of all frozen vegetable imports, to the tune of $243 million in 2010, primarily from Mexico.

According to the USDA, Americans ate more than eight pounds of broccoli per person in 2011, a 33 percent spike since 1990, when President Bush went on his broccoli bash.

There are a handful of vegetables in the marketplace containing the word “broccoli.” Although delicious, they are broccoli in name only.

  • Broccoli rabe: As my RFRN colleague Megan Saynisch reports, the Andy Boy produce brand holds a trademark for the name “broccoli rabe,” otherwise known and labeled as rapini. It’s confusing, to say the least.  Although a member of the Brassica family, rapini, with its bitter leaves and small buds, is more closely related to the turnip than to broccoli.
  • Broccolini:  A thin-stalked, flowering green, broccolini is a hybrid of broccoli and gai lan, also known as Chinese broccoli, which is really a bitter green. Sold as Asparation, a highly un-vegetable-like name.
  • Broccoli Romenesco: Also known as Romanesco cauliflower, or simply Romanesco. Primarily a farmers’ market item, this beauty, in a shade of chartreuse, comes with a cone top that food writer Elizabeth Schneider describes as “part starfish, part wedding cake.” But really, the word broccoli has no business here. Its texture and flavor notes are all cauliflower.
  • Broccoflower: Simply put, this is a green cauliflower. In the heat of marketing excitement, the broccoflower has been billed as a cross, when really it’s a green cauliflower from Italy.

Seasonality

Although available year round, broccoli is a cool-weather crop, and like many of its Brassica relatives, does not like extreme heat or cold. It thrives in the fall and spring.

Environmental Impact

Among supermarket produce items, conventional broccoli falls somewhere in the middle on the pesticide residue scale. It earned a #27 ranking on the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers Guide to Pesticides to Produce, which means it’s neither on the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list nor on its “Clean 15.”

There have been a few food safety recalls over the past few years but primarily for ready-to-eat products containing broccoli and broccoli sprouts. Most recently, more than 5,000 pounds of broccoli salad kits were recalled for possible listeria contamination.

Our advice: Buy broccoli in its whole form, and whenever possible, from a local source at its seasonal peak. Also, wash it carefully, especially when eating it raw. (*Check out our Real Food rule of thumb.)

Characteristics

With its trunk-like stems and canopy of forest green/purplish bud clusters, full-headed broccoli could be mistaken for Japanese bonsai trees.

Young sprouting broccoli, typically found at farmers’ markets, has a less developed thinner stem, and as a result, is more tender and quick cooking. Its flower sprouts, also not completely developed, look less like flowers and more like immature buds.

What to look for

Nothing limp or yellowing. Florets should be tightly closed and deep green, with a purplish tinge. Stems should be free of mold or signs of bruising. As hardy as it seems, broccoli is perishable, and discoloration is one of the first signs of decay. 

Nutrition

Superfood indeed. In the department of food-as-medicine, broccoli is eager to please. One cup of cooked broccoli delivers five grams of fiber, nearly four grams of protein, plus a slew of Vitamins A and C, all at just 55 calories. It contains folate, iron, potassium, omega-3 fatty acids and probably the secret to world peace.

Can broccoli ward off cancer? That’s what researchers continue to ask.
Its unique combination of phytonutrients doing anti-inflammatory, antioxidative and detoxifying work has shown tremendous promise in reducing the risk of several types of cancer – breast, bladder, colon, ovarian and prostate. 

It’s also being studied for its potential in treating various degenerative conditions, skin damage, stomach ulcers and adult blindness, to name a few.

The bottom line: If you want to give your body a little boost, eat some broccoli.

What to Do with it

Are you a floret fan or a stem person? Most folks fall into either camp, rarely both. That’s because until recently, most of us have prepared whole broccoli spears one of two ways –boiled or steamed – with wet, boring and unevenly cooked results. Stems take longer to cook than florets, so if you’re ever had mushy florets and fibrous stems in one bite, that’s why. So why not separate’em?

But in that act of separation, whatever you do, please don’t toss the stems! They’re actually tasty morsels. Peel away the outer, sometimes tough layer, and you’ll find “the meatiest and tastiest part of the vegetable,” according to the late Marcella Hazan in her book, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Peeled stems can be cut into julienne strips or into rounds, then quickly sautéed, or shaved with a vegetable peeler and eaten raw.

One of the tastiest ways to treat whole spears is to put them in the oven. Roasting softens and sweetens the stems, a striking departure from the boiled wet spears of yesteryear.  

Storage

To the best of your ability, keep moisture to a minimum in the refrigerator. Keep it loosely wrapped in a plastic bag or dish towel, and use within a few days. As broccoli ages, it starts to mold and soften.

If you’re racing against time, consider freezing for later. Separate stalks from florets and parboil everything (see details for blanching in Cooking Tips section) for three minutes, then shock in an ice water bath. Drain well, pat dry and place in freezer bags.

Cooking Tips

Overcooked broccoli, both mushy and sulphur-smelling, is arguably the reason for continued broccoli mistrust. Some suggest that valuable nutrients are lost, too. 

Rather than a full boil, dip the spears into salted boiling water for a quick 60-second dip, then into ice water to shock and stop cooking. This is a technique called blanching. Be sure to keep the lid off during the quick boil; otherwise, your brocc will go from emerald green to military brown. Drain, then sauté in a small amount of oil; the fat will facilitate absorption of nutrients and invites flavor opportunities – garlic, ginger, citrus, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, to name just a few.

I like the sound of the Broccoli Salad from the Sprouted Kitchen by Sara Forte. You separate stems from florets, steam the florets and peel the stems into thin chards or wisps. Reunite broccoli parts in a bowl, along with sunflower seeds, sliced apple and fresh parsley, all tossed with a honey-Dijon mustard vinaigrette. Doesn’t that sound good?

And if you’re game for a stem-only experience, the recipe below is an easy entry point.  Thinly sliced stems are salted (a brine of sorts) overnight, then infused in a simple vinaigrette with stuff you’ve already got on hand. Could broccoli stems be the next big party snack?

Recipe

Martha Rose Shulman’s Marinated Broccoli Stems, as told by Clifford A. Wright in “The Little Foods of the Mediterranean”

Ingredients
3 to 4 broccoli stems
12 teaspoon salt, preferably sea salt
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or cider vinegar (KOD note: Champagne vinegar or rice vinegar would also be tasty)
1 tablespoon olive oil

Peel the broccoli stems and cut into thin slices, about 18-inch thick. Place in a small bowl with the salt, and toss until well coated. Transfer to a jar, cover tightly and refrigerate overnight or for several hours.

Drain the liquid from the jar. Transfer the broccoli stems to a bowl and toss with the garlic, vinegar and oil, until well coated.  Return the stems and its marinade to the jar. Refrigerate for several hours, and serve at room temperature.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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