broccoli

Broccoli gets such a bad rap. This is perplexing to those of us who love that green, treelike stalky vegetable.

Back in March 1990, then president George H. W. Bush famously declared, “I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!”

Roy Blount, Jr., put it more wittily but no less insultingly: ”The local groceries are all out of broccoli, loccoli.”

My friend Rosie Schaap, an adventurous eater who possesses one of the more sophisticated palates around, told me, “Personally, I hate that blasted cruciferous monster. I know it’s healthy, etc., etc., etc., so I dutifully hold my nose and snarf it down if it accompanies something I’ve ordered. And hating broccoli is a little embarrassing, because it means one has something in common with George H. W. Bush.”

Meanwhile, my friend Gabrielle, an American who spent much of her childhood in the South of France from the late 1960s to the mid-’70s, told me that there was no broccoli there when she was growing up. “The French of my generation and those even older than I was had no idea what the word broccoli even meant, so much so that it was on a TV game/quiz show as a question: ‘What is broccoli?’ This made me laugh, because as an American, I knew the answer, of course.”

Gabrielle was eventually told that broccoli had once been very common in France and grew abundantly there. It was, in fact, a main source of food during World War II, but because of this, it became associated with the horrors of the war, and so the French stopped growing it once the war was over, and it was unknown to the subsequent generations.

Come to think of it, I don’t remember eating any broccoli when I lived in France either.

Wartime or not, they never stopped eating it in Italy. In fact, broccoli originated in Calabria, the toe of the boot. The vegetable is, technically, the large green flowering head of the cabbage. Although it’s impossible to know for sure, it’s commonly believed that the name broccoli comes from the Italian “brocco,” meaning “sprout” or “shoot,” which comes from the Latin, “brachium,” meaning “arm” or “branch.”

Along with its close cousins (including cabbage, cauliflower, kale, bok choy, brussels sprouts, collard greens, rutabaga, kohlrabi, and turnips), broccoli is cruciferous, so termed because plants in this family all have flowers with four petals in the shape of a cross. Famously cancer fighting, laden with vitamins, minerals, soluble fiber, and phytonutrients, broccoli and its relatives are among the healthiest ingredients of the human diet.

Unfortunately, there is a comical and unfortunate whiff of the gaseous associated with this family. Broccoli when overboiled produces a sulfuric stench that causes children to gag the instant they enter the house. “Smells like FARTS!” more than one of them (but never me or my sisters, of course) has been known to cry. And alas, it’s not too far off the mark: Boiled cruciferous vegetables release trisulfides, the olfactory offender in question.

Broccoli, therefore, benefits greatly from a quick cooking method, and ideally one that keeps it out of water. Steaming, roasting, or stir-frying are the best; they produce almost no offensive odors and have the added advantage of preserving many of the nutrients. Lightly steamed, roasted on a cookie sheet in a hot oven, or flash cooked in a wok with chicken (the classic Chinese-takeout staple), broccoli is deliciously mild and sweet.

My sister Susan’s favorite way to cook and eat broccoli is simple, but her description of the preparation induces an instant craving in me: “I steam the tops in big pieces and drench them in butter and salt and eat them with my fingers.” She sets the stems aside for green goddess soup: For this she peels the woody bits, chops them small, and steams them with onion, carrot, and potato, adding butter and salt and pepper. Using an immersion blender, she purees it all with broth, then serves this rich, light, excellent soup with a little dollop of yogurt on top.

I generally steam the florets and peeled stems alike in a steamer basket, then flash cook the broccoli in a hot cast-iron skillet in olive oil with a lot of sautéed garlic; add a dash of lemon juice, and it becomes a perfect side dish. It’s also a meal in itself, tossed with hot pasta, grated Parmesan, and toasted walnuts.

Of course, eating broccoli raw, nutritionally and aesthetically speaking, is no doubt the best way of all. Raw broccoli makes a delectable salad when sliced into thin strips on a mandolin, marinated in lemon-mustard vinaigrette, then tossed with toasted pecans or hazelnuts, halved cherry tomatoes, and fresh minced basil. For a more decadent salad, cut raw broccoli into little florets and marinate them in a buttermilk dressing and toss with crisp, crumbled bacon; onions; and golden raisins.

Ina Garten, otherwise known as the Barefoot Contessa, is a champion of the roast-till-it-caramelizes method. After roasting chopped broccoli with garlic cloves, a lot of olive oil, salt, and pepper on a cookie sheet for twenty-five minutes, until it’s “crisp-tender and the tips of some of the florets are browned,” you zest a lemon over it, squeeze the juice on top of that, and toss it all with pine nuts, Parmesan, fresh basil, and more olive oil. This recipe is outstanding and unbeatable; it elevates this humble gas-bomb to a gourmet delicacy.

For those who want a richer dish, comfort food that’s heavy on the calories, fat, and dairy, there’s that old standby of the cruise-ship buffet table and hospital cafeteria and Midwestern restaurant alike, broccoli cheddar soup. The ingredients could not be more soothing: broccoli, chopped onion, butter, grated cheddar, milk, half-and-half, flour, salt, and pepper—nutmeg or Worcestershire sauce optional. Essentially, you melt the butter, sauté the onion in it, whisk in a bit of flour to make a roux, stir in the milk and half-and-half, then throw in a bunch of chopped broccoli and simmer it until it’s tender. Add handfuls of grated cheese and stir well. A trip through the blender (or not, depending on your desired consistency), and voilà, instant cozy decadence on a cold, damp night.

Somehow, for some reason, the cheese, half-and-half, and milk seem to mask any sulfurlike wafts the broccoli might have produced along the way. I know very few kids, or people in general—or presidents, former or current—who could refuse a bowl of this stuff.