It may not be on everyone’s list of the world’s sexiest vegetables, but broccoli is a cook’s dependable friend. It’s always in the market, almost always in good condition, and it’s reliably inexpensive. Given its popularity with shoppers today (even kids like eating “trees”), it’s hard to believe that this vegetable was almost unknown outside the immigrant Italian community until the 1920s. But since broccoli has gained a reputation as a nutritional powerhouse (it’s an excellent source of calcium, as well as antioxidant vitamins C and E and other cancer-fighting phytochemicals), it’s now more popular than ever, and cooks have learned that broccoli is eminently adaptable in the kitchen. Although broccoli is a cool-weather crop in most home gardens, it’s in good supply commercially year-round. At my house, however, it’s more often on the table in cold months, when its sturdy character is most satisfying.
Broccoli can be simply boiled or steamed and dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon. It can be stir-fried with Asian seasonings—beef with broccoli is a Chinese classic—or braised in a covered skillet with pancetta and rosemary. (Keep in mind that covering broccoli as it cooks will compromise its bright green color and bring out its stronger, cabbage-like flavors.) It can even be tossed with a little oil and coarse salt and roasted quickly in a hot oven.
In my kitchen, broccoli usually gets an aggressive treatment. I like it best with bold seasonings, such as anchovies, garlic (lots), pecorino cheese, spicy sausage, olives, oyster sauce, and fish sauce. Sometimes I purée it with potatoes, chicken broth, and dill for soup; or with olive oil, pine nuts, basil, Parmesan, and a touch of cream for a pasta sauce. I might also chop it and cook it slowly in olive oil with garlic and anchovies to make a soft spread for bruschetta.
Look for compact, tightly closed florets and thin-skinned stems on the slender side. At the market, avoid broccoli that’s dried or cracked on the cut end or that has obviously woody stems, and leave behind any yellowing specimens. If it passes the visual inspection, take a whiff—broccoli should smell fresh, not strong and cabbagy. At home, store it in a loose (unsealed) plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper. It will keep for a few days, but you should use it as quickly as possible, before the florets start to deteriorate.
I’ve never understood why people pay extra at the market to buy only the trimmed florets. To my taste, the stem is the best part. It’s sweet and crunchy when raw—like a young radish—and pleasantly mild when cooked. The key is to pare the stems generously with a knife or a vegetable peeler to remove the tough outer layer (see Cutting broccoli so it cooks evenly). Sometimes I separate stems from florets, and then pare and slice the stems and have them as a nibble while I cook the florets.
Broccoli can be cooked slowly or quickly steamed. When I want to serve broccoli al dente, I prefer to steam it rather than boil it. It doesn’t absorb as much water when it’s steamed, and it’s easier to get the timing right. But if I’m making a pasta sauce with broccoli and heating pasta water anyway, I boil the broccoli and then use the water I cooked the broccoli in to cook the pasta. Either way, if you plan to cook the spears whole, slit the stems so they’ll cook as quickly as the more delicate florets.
Some people believe that the worst crime you can commit against broccoli is overcooking it. They want their spears bright green and firm to the tooth. Although I enjoy broccoli that way—especially if it’s dressed with a vinaigrette and some chopped egg or anchovy fillets, or drizzled with oyster sauce—I also appreciate the rich, developed taste of well-cooked broccoli. Like green beans that southerners simmer for hours with ham or bacon, broccoli develops a deeper, fuller taste when braised at length.
What’s hard to like is soggy broccoli. Boiling it too long or failing to drain and dry it properly will yield a watery vegetable with watered-down taste. If you’re serving whole spears or whole florets, be sure to drain them well and pat them dry before saucing. Those little florets just love to hold water.
To help build your broccoli repertoire, I’ve developed four recipes that demonstrate the vegetable’s versatility. In one recipe, it adds backbone to a traditional frittata. In another, it makes a zesty pasta sauce with hot Italian sausage. I’ve also stir-fried it with oyster sauce and sesame oil to create a speedy side dish for a Chinese- or Thai-inspired dinner. And, finally, I’ve steamed it in the most basic manner and then dressed it with bagna cauda (pronounced BAHN-yah KOW-dah), a warm Italian anchovy and garlic sauce. I hope these ideas will inspire you to bring broccoli to your table more often.
Broccoli cousins are multiplying
Broccoli fans are finding a lot to like at produce markets these days. In addition to conventional broccoli, many stores now carry several broccoli relatives and look-alikes. Keep an eye out for broccoflower, a cross between cauliflower and broccoli that looks like a green cauliflower and tastes more of cauliflower than broccoli.
You might also see purple broccoli or purple-sprouting broccoli , which produces lots of tender side shoots but resembles conventional broccoli in taste. Chinese broccoli (gai lan), is a particularly flavorful, leafy variety with thick stems. The new thin-stemmed broccolini is a cross between conventional and Chinese broccoli with a flavor reminiscent of both. Broccolini is sometimes marketed as aspiration, but it isn’t related to asparagus.
The pleasantly bitter broccoli raab (also called broccoli rabe or rapini) is related to turnips, not to broccoli, but it has a broccoli-like appearance and taste. Paradoxically, the thinnest stems tend to be the toughest. If the stems feel wiry or stringy, I remove them; if they’re thicker than a pencil but tender, I slit them to help them cook more quickly.
Don’t hesitate to try some of these more unusual vegetables in the recipes that follow, although you may need to adjust cooking times.