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Why broccoli doesn’t deserve its bad rap

Mar 07, 2024Mar 07, 2024

Broccoli gets a bad rap. It’s constantly maligned and scorned the way spinach and lima beans were when I was a kid. I’ve never understood why. Didn’t we stop overcooking vegetables in the 1960s? That’s about the only way to harm broccoli — to overcook it. Cooked briefly and simply dressed, it’s a delight. In broccoli, we find that wonderful intersection of extremely good-for-you and delicious.

Although broccoli is at its peak in cold weather, it now grows year-round in California, which provides nearly all of the nation’s supply. Like many cool-weather crops, most broccoli, including that sold at supermarkets, is pretty good — built to last and less vulnerable than tender summer crops that must be eaten soon after harvest. Farmers market broccoli is absolutely great — the stalks often are more slender and tender.

In most markets, broccoli is sold in 1½- to 2-pound bunches, which yield about 1 pound of broccoli, enough to serve 3 or 4 people as a side dish. At the farmers markets, broccoli sometimes is sold by the bunch and sometimes by the pound. The key difference, in addition to taste, is that there is always less waste; a pound of broccoli from the farmers market usually yields a pound of broccoli.

When choosing broccoli, look for slender, crisp stalks with tightly closed florets without any traces of yellow, which indicates the broccoli is well past its prime. Darker broccoli means there is more beta carotene and vitamin C in the stalks. Broccoli has a bright, clean smell when it is fresh; pass up broccoli with an aroma of decay, limp leaves, brown spots or slimy patches on the stalks.

Broccoli will keep, stored in the refrigerator in an open plastic bag, for several days, though it is best to use it within a day or 2, when its nutritional content is highest. With iron, calcium, vitamins A and C and lots of other nutrients, it’s easy to understand broccoli’s reputation as one of the healthiest foods around. Do not wash it before you store it.

If you have an aversion to broccoli, it may because of its smell when it’s overcooked. Like other cruciferous vegetables, it releases sulfur compounds when heated and gives off an aroma not unlike rotten eggs, a smell that increases the longer broccoli is cooked. Overcooked, it also turns an unappetizing shade of brown.

Sprouting broccoli, often called broccolini, has flower buds, some open to reveal yellow blossoms, some tightly closed. It should look pert and fresh, without wilted flowers or blemishes.

Today’s recipes feature both broccoli and broccolini.

You don’t need a proper steamer to cook broccoli. All you need is a pot large enough to hold all the broccoli and a tight-fitting lid. Once you’ve steamed it, you can enjoy it neat or dress it up with a flavored butter, vinaigrette or another sauce or condiment. Broccoli goes extremely well with mustard, to which it is related; both are brassicas.

Makes 4 servings

1 - ½ pounds broccoli, separated into single stalks

Kosher salt

Pour a small amount of water (about ½ inch) in a pan large enough to hold the broccoli. Arrange the stalks in the pan stem side down. Set over medium heat, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and cook until the broccoli is just tender, about 7 minutes.

After the broccoli has been cooking for about 2 minutes, remove the lid for 15 seconds then cover again; this will disperse some of the sulfur compounds many people dislike.

When just tender, remove from the heat and enjoy right away or set aside until ready to use.

Variation: If you prefer broccoli in pieces rather than stalks, first cut the florets from the stems and break them into pieces if they are large. Cut the stems into thin (about ⅛-inch) diagonal slices. After adding water to the pot, add the sliced stems first, then the florets on top. Steam as directed, for 4 to 5 minutes. Drain off any water and enjoy.

Serving suggestions:

With mustard: Mix together ⅓ cup sour cream or crème fraîche, 2 tablespoons half-and-half and 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard. Season to taste with kosher salt and several turns of black pepper.

With yogurt sauce: Mix together ¾ cup plain yogurt, 3 tablespoons green peppercorn or Dijon mustard, 3 tablespoons minced black olives and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Top each serving of broccoli with a generous spoonful.

With mustard vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1 minced small shallot, 1 minced garlic clove, 1 teaspoon minced Italian parsley, ½ teaspoon thyme leaves, ½ teaspoon kosher salt and several turns of black pepper. Stir in 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar. Slowly add ⅔ cup extra-virgin olive oil. Taste and correct the seasoning. Put the cooked broccoli in a shallow serving dish, pour the vinaigrette over it, toss to coat the broccoli thoroughly and let rest for 5 minutes before serving. If you like, top with ½ cup chopped black olives or sprinkle with grated hard-cooked egg.

Like most brassicas — cabbage, cauliflower, kale, turnips and certain greens — sprouting broccoli pairs beautifully with the smoky richness of bacon. In this dish, the bacon also balances the onion, which otherwise might overwhelm broccolini’s delicate flavors.

Makes 4 servings

4 eggs, optional

3 - 4 thick bacon slices

1 small red onion, sliced into thin rounds

1 pound sprouting broccoli or broccolini

3 - 4 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced

Kosher salt

Black pepper in a mill

1 lemon, cut in wedges

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

Cook the eggs, if using, by your preferred method until hard-cooked. (My method: Put the eggs in a small saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil, remove from the heat, let sit for 17 minutes and drain.) Set them aside.

Cook the bacon in a medium saute pan until it is crispy; transfer the bacon to a brown paper bag to drain.

Cook the onion in the bacon fat, tossing frequently, until it wilts, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the sprouting broccoli and saute 4 to 5 minutes, until it is somewhat wilted but still a tad crunchy. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute more.

Working quickly, peel the eggs and cut them in half lengthwise.

Put the broccoli on a serving platter and surround it with the eggs and lemon wedges. Season all over with salt, pepper and red pepper.

Enjoy right away.

The main ingredients in this dish — broccoli, sausage and orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) — form a classic Italian trio, sometimes served in a soup, as here, and sometimes as a pasta.

Makes 4 servings

8 ounces dried orecchiette or other small pasta

Kosher salt

1 pound spicy Italian sausages

6 - 8 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound broccoli florets

6 cups chicken stock

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Black pepper in a mill

3 ounces dry Jack, Estero Gold or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

Ultra-premium extra-virgin olive oil, optional

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta, stir gently until the water returns to a boil and cook according to the package directions until it is not quite tender. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, set a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, add the sausages and cook until they are lightly browned all over. Transfer the sausages to absorbent paper. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the sausages, add the garlic and saute for 90 seconds, until it is fragrant but not browned.

Add the broccoli florets, stir gently and add 1 cup of the chicken stock. Cover the pan, cook for 3 minutes and remove the lid.

Working quickly, cut the sausages into ½-inch rounds and add them to the pot, along with the pasta, the rest of the chicken stock and the red pepper flakes.

Bring to boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer gently until the broccoli is completely tender, about 7 to 12 minutes depending on the size of the florets.

Remove from the heat and let cool briefly. Stir in the parsley and add several turns of black pepper. Taste and correct for salt.

Ladle into soup bowls and top with the cheese and a swirl of olive oil, if using. Enjoy right away.

Serve this tangy dish alongside roast chicken, atop polenta or tossed with a favorite pasta. I prefer it with strozzapreti.

Makes 4 servings

4 ounces feta, cut into ¼-inch cubes

Zest of 1 lemon

Juice of 1 lemon

2 teaspoons brined green peppercorns, drained

2 garlic cloves

Kosher salt

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or Meyer lemon olive oil

Black pepper in a mill

1 pound sprouting broccoli

Olive oil

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed if salted

8 slices hearth bread, lightly toasted

Put the feta into a small bowl and add the lemon zest and half the green peppercorns.

Put the garlic cloves into a mortar or suribachi, add a small pinch of salt and use a pestle to crush and grind it to a paste. Add the remaining green peppercorns and crush them lightly. Thin the mixture with the lemon juice, add the extra-virgin olive oil, pour the mixture over the feta and toss lightly. Do not over-mix. Season with a little black pepper and set aside.

Fill the bottom part of a steamer with 2 inches of water, set the steamer basket on top and steam the sprouting broccoli until it is just tender, about 4 minutes.

While the broccoli steams, put a splash of olive oil in a small saute pan set over medium-high heat, add the capers and saute until they open up and just begin to color. Remove from the heat and aside.

Put the steamed sprouting broccoli on a serving platter and spoon the feta mixture on top. Scatter the fried capers and enjoy, with the bread alongside.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Mustard.” Email her at [email protected].