What's In Season: Broccoli, Broccolini and Broccoli Rabe
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee and Field Guide to Produce by Aliza Green
Broccoli, broccolini and broccoli rabe. The names are so similar it's easy to get confused. Plus they're all green vegetables, which doesn't help. But they are each quite different in flavor and how we cook them.
With all the vegetable choices we have, I will confess that broccoli is not a favorite. I know it's fabulously nutritious, but there's something about the texture of those little florets that seems gritty to me, no matter how well I wash it. And if cooked too long it announces itself with a smelly aroma that dominates everything else on your plate. My husband disagrees and really loves it, as do many of you. I try to compensate for not cooking it too often by instead serving the subtler broccolini, or better yet -- broccoli rabe, which might be my favorite all-time vegetable.
But all three are versatile, highly nutritious, and big flavored choices, found in cuisines around the world. If you ever get them confused, which is easy to do, here's a primer on each.
For some reason broccoli has been a political punch line. First there was that George H.W. Bush declaration of independence using the privilege of his office:
"I do not like broccoli 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. Now look, this is the last statement I’m going to have on broccoli. There are truckloads of broccoli at this very minute descending on Washington. My family is divided. For the broccoli vote out there: Barbara loves broccoli. She has tried to make me eat it. She eats it all the time herself. So she can go out and meet the caravan of broccoli that’s coming in."
This past spring it was a metaphor in the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on health care reform. Justice Scalia cited it during oral arguments and Justice Roberts wrote in the opinion:
"According to the Government, upholding the individual mandate would not justify mandatory purchases of items such as cars or broccoli because, as the Government puts it, '[h]ealth insurance is not purchased for its own sake like a car or broccoli; it is a means of financing health-care consumption and covering universal risks.' … But cars and broccoli are no more purchased for their 'own sake' than health insurance. They are purchased to cover the need for transportation and food."
Should we cite the commerce clause to make eating broccoli a mandate?
Buying and Cooking With Broccoli
Despite President Bush and whatever the Supreme Court may think, broccoli is a hugely popular vegetable. We primarily eat the green version, although it's also raised with purple or white heads. It's available year-round with a peak season from October to April.
Broccoli is the flower of a plant that's a member of the cabbage family. Its name is an Italian word that means "the flowering top of a cabbage," and it's related to cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts, a family of extremely healthy vegetables that food scientist and author Harold McGee calls "formidable chemical warriors."
Look for broccoli that has deep green heads with tight, compact bud clusters and light green stems, avoiding ones with white, thick stalks as these will be tougher. Also avoid broccoli with yellow flower buds as this is a sign of age. A 1 1/2 pound bunch of broccoli will produce about four cups when it's been trimmed.
Leave broccoli unwashed until you're ready to cook it and keep it in a plastic bag, refrigerated where it should keep well for about four days. While most of us prefer the florets, the stems are fully edible. Just peel them of any thick skin or bumps and cut them into smaller pieces or slices so that they'll cook more easily.
Besides having lots of flavor, broccoli is a super food, high in fiber, vitamin C, selenium, beta-carotene, lutein, and other nutrients that are said to combat various types of cancer and help in eye health.
It's a versatile ingredient, popular in Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and other cuisines and it's used in stir-fries, puréed into soup, fried in tempura batter, sauced, roasted, and steamed. Its flavor is enhanced with garlic, soy, lemon, hot chiles, beef, and chicken. Used raw, the florets can be part of a crudité platter or added to salad. Steamed until just tender, they can be scattered on top of an otherwise all-white pizza. Or they can add flavor and color to a cheddar cheese omelet or quiche.
All too often we see these small green florets doused in a cheese sauce, as if this will mask its flavor from anyone who doesn't like broccoli. I think anyone who doesn't like broccoli will still know it's hidden under some orange sauce. I may be biased because I don't particularly like cheese sauce on anything. I love cheese; I don't feel the same about it as a sauce, except mac and cheese, which is a whole other matter.
A very simple and flavorful way to cook broccoli is to sauté about 2 pounds of broccoli florets with 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 2 mashed anchovy fillets, and 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Start with the garlic and anchovies in the olive oil, cooking over medium heat until the garlic starts to brown. Add the broccoli, toss to mix, and reduce the heat to medium, cooking for about 10 minutes or until the florets are tender. Season with salt and pepper. You can also steam the broccoli florets in the microwave and separately cook the olive oil, garlic and mashed anchovy fillets in a small skillet and once the garlic is soft and lightly browned, pour this over the cooked broccoli and toss.
Or for an old fashioned dish that many still love, use your food processor to chop and julienne two heads of broccoli into a slaw and mix it with thin slices of red onion, sweet currants and slivered almonds and dress it with a creamy and tangy buttermilk dressing.
Despite its name, broccoli rabe has nothing to do with broccoli. It's totally unrelated by species and its flavor is totally different. A vegetable that is hugely popular in Italy, especially in southern Italy, the name broccoli rabe is a derivation of broccoletti di rape, or little sprouts of turnip, referring to a turnip variety that looks like broccoli rabe.
With its slender stalks that become tender when cooked and topped with a small cluster of flower buds, broccoli rabe's deep green leaves become even darker when cooked and have a bitter flavor, more bitter than broccoli, but zestier, too. Another green vegetable that is very similar to broccoli rabe but harder to find is rapini. Rapini has fewer flower buds and tastes more like mustard greens.
Broccoli rabe is also high in nutrients, similar to other vegetables called leafy greens or bitter greens, including kale, spinach, and chard.
When buying broccoli rabe, look for crisp, deep green leaves -- smaller leaves are better, with few marks or spots -- and with tightly closed, green florets. In New York markets the Andy Boy brand is ubiquitous and consistently good. If the bunches of broccoli rabe are displayed with ice, this is a normal way for them to be sold because the ice makes sure that the leaves don't wilt while sitting out on the produce shelf. Shake off the ice before bagging the broccoli rabe at the store and once home, store it unwashed in a plastic bag, refrigerated for up to four days.
When cooking broccoli rabe, trim off any coarse stems and ends, but leave the stalks because they will easily become tender once cooked. Wash the leaves and stalks by swirling them in cool water to remove any debris, but the leaves won't be as sandy as spinach is.
Broccoli rabe is popular in Italian cuisine, as in the classic combination of broccoli rabe with sausage and orecchiette, the small pasta ovals named for their resemblence to little ears.
I like broccoli rabe cooked simply, braised with olive oil, thin slices of browned garlic, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Cooked this way it's a perfect side with fish, meat or poultry, it can be tossed with pasta, or use a forkful on lightly toasted pieces of good bread to make crostini. Because of its bitterness, I particularly like to pair broccoli rabe with anything that is remotely sweet or musky, in the way roast chicken or baked sweet potatoes can be.
See our recipe for how I make it.
Broccolini is a hybrid developed by combining European and Asian brassicas, the plant species that also brings us broccoli. In this case it's a cross of broccoli and Chinese kale.
Broccolini tastes like broccoli but its flavor isn't as strong. Also, its lighter green stalks are more slender and tender and the flower buds are larger, clustered more loosely than the tiny broccoli buds. Sometimes the little buds are yellow but this makes no difference in their cooking or flavor.
I like broccolini best when cooked one of two ways. First, I love it steamed so that it is tender but not mushy, with just a little olive oil and a sprinkle of coarse salt. Maldon or sel de mer are both good because they keep a little crunch. But the other way I love it is cooked with bacon and grated Parmesan so that the surface gets a little crunchy and salty from the cheese. See our link to a recipe from Fine Cooking magazine that I love and make often. It calls for piment d'Espelette, a mild and smoky chile pepper from Spain's Basque region, which while perfect to season this dish can be hard to find. You can easily substitute any other mild dried chile seasoning.
Other October Harvests
Other foods that are being harvested this month and are available fresh and local (in the northeast) include apples, beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, pears, squash, and greens like spinach, Swiss chard, kale, and mustard greens. Enjoy the fall harvest!