Broccoli – love it or loathe it, like its cousin, the cauliflower. I love both so don’t understand how you could not like broccoli (or cauliflower). Early botanists were confounded as to quite how it grew its curd, they just knew it did.
More dumb, US President George Bush the Elder had it banished from the White House menu almost immediately on taking office – much to the chagrin of America’s broccoli farmers who were boxed in enough without the new President’s shallow whim attracting world headlines. I recall they trucked up many hundreds of tonnes to Washington in protest. Behaviour unlikely from his more elegant and better travelled predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, who loved good food and fine wine having been the US minister to France just before the Revolution.
Good for Everything
Nutritionally broccoli is top hole – a gold medal winner amongst all vegetables - a brassica that’s rich in just about everything, so go easy in cooking. We say it should never be cooked in water, only steamed or briefly fried. It used to be a luxury item when I was younger and today it’s on sale everywhere. Some is good and some is less so. If it’s firm and fresh cut, buy it – if it’s floppy and losing buds, leave it.
The Italians rate it highly, the more so because it’s one of the first new fresh greens to become available after the winter months. They call it calabrese – whether that links it to Calabria, I have not been able to discover. Maybe a reader will tell me. Children who struggle with their vegetables more often than not love it too – the ‘little trees’ presentation never fails.
Prepared with salted anchovies and garlic, served as a warm salad, or stirred through pasta, it’s a preparation I reserve only for the finest broccoli. That I say salted anchovies is important too – not those brown strips used by low life pizzerias. Yesterday I called by a farm shop which grow their broccoli in fields just minutes from the busy A2 into London, just 15 minutes from home.
As a fusion of several recipes learned over time, I wash the anchovies of their salty covering and pat them dry. Then very gently fry them and 5-6 cloves of chopped garlic in EV olive oil, being specially generous with the oil. Allow it cool after just 8-10 minutes cooking and then pound in the mortar to a creamy rich ‘pesto’.
The lightly steamed broccoli – still al-dente - is dressed with the rich, fresh pesto and served. This lily of a dish can be gilded with some grated Pecorino, Grana or Parmigiana - but stay light handed with the cheese so as not to knock back the flavour of the broccoli and it’s dressing. It is interesting how this works – and is indeed allowed - given the Italians never eat a fish based pasta with Parmesan.
This can also make a substantial course when stirred through pasta – my choice here is bucatini (the hollow spaghetti from Rome and the South). Allow one head of broccoli per person – that’s the measure of its tastiness. Nothing is wasted either because it makes a fine anti-pasti tomorrow if not devoured today.
Off with the heads say the Chinese
When Chinatown began to become established in London’s Gerrard Street it was not unusual to see masses of broccoli heads being thrown away by the restaurant kitchens. For a people who waste nothing, this was unusual – all the more that the Europeans enjoyed broccoli for the head more than the stalk. The Chinese valued these peeled stalks, rating them as equals with asparagus – steaming them with finely chopped garlic, ginger or both - other times with oyster sauce.
According to a famous gardening dictionary published in the early 1700s, broccoli was often referred to in England as ‘Italian Asparagus’ and similarly presented at table. The French were introduced to broccoli by – well, it’s that grand Florentine lady again, Catherine de Medici, who is credited with so much largesse with the foods she brought to France.
Like all good fresh foods, broccoli is best served simply, so for me, hold the Hollandaise. That’s just too Chubby Broccoli.
Post Script: Check out Jeffrey Steingarten’s view on the anchovy – the time he discovered they didn’t have to be vile brown strips on top of cheap pizza – it’s in his wonderful ‘The Man Who Ate Everything’. Steingarten’s writing never disappoints.