Kitchen-garden diary: in praise of broccoli

Ameer Kotecha
·3-min read
Photo credit: Natalia Yanez-Stiel
Photo credit: Natalia Yanez-Stiel

From Town & Country

I love broccoli. A giant of the vegetable world, it’s cheap, packed with goodness and has more absorption power than a packet of Kleenex. I can’t get enough of the stuff: roasted, stir-fried, steamed, even raw.

Broccoli belongs to the cruciferous family, along with cauliflower, cabbage and kale, and Jamie Oliver combines it with its close cousins in his recipe for roasted brassicas with puy lentils and halloumi. It blends well into soup, and is often found in pasta dishes, particularly with orecchiette, the pasta hailing from Puglia that is shaped like ‘little ears’ (Gino D’Acampo has a recipe for this). Broccoli and Stilton is of course a classic, and worth taking the time to master, but there is so much more besides: pair with a nuttier cheese such as gruyère, or eschew the dairy and combine instead with Asian flavours such as ginger, coriander and turmeric for a tremendously healthy option. Just 80g (three or four florets) will give you one of your five-a-day.

One of my earliest food memories was of my mum’s raw broccoli and avocado salad. The florets sucked up all of the vinegary, mustardy dressing; a piquant mouthful offset by the creamy blandness of the avocado. This veg is an edible sponge and I rely on that same absorption when I cook it in the wok with garlic, ginger, sriracha and soy. Alternatively, roast it until slightly charred and crispy for a wonderfully concentrated flavour; I like to dust it pre-roasting with garlic powder and Old Bay seasoning to make a filling for vegetarian tacos or a side dish for a Cajun feast.

There is a fashion nowadays for serving broccoli whole: Gunpowder and the Palomar are advocates. It arrives invariably at the table with a quivering steak knife stuck in the middle. All the chefs are showing off with broccoli these days: tandoori broccoli at Gymkhana; crunchy broccoli tempura wrapped in black rice and nori at Uchi.

The supermarkets will try to sell you a ‘broccoli crown’ for a premium – all flowery head and shorn-off stalk. Resist the urge: the stalk is delicious and nutritious. It cannot absorb in the same way as the florets, but it has crunch and excellent flavour. Cut into thin slices and throw it in the pan. Add the florets a little later to guard against overcooking or they will go mushy and lose flavour.

There are, of course, the fancy broccolis: Tenderstem, purple-sprouting and even – if you search hard enough – white-sprouting, which looks like a premature cauliflower. These sprouting broccolis were in fact the earlier kind: the large, green-flowering variety we associate with regular broccoli today was cultivated only later, in Calabria in southern Italy, as a more resilient variety for canning and freezing. Before long, its bigger clumps and milder flavour had caught on.

For Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, purple-spouting broccoli ranks alongside asparagus in taste, and he has a crop of delicious recipes in which to use it. Sadly, while undoubtedly a pleasure to eat, this variety now comes with a heftier price tag, which is a shame, because the broccoli is not meant to be poncy. It is meant to give me fibre and iron for less than the cost of a Weetabix, not to mention containing a host of antioxidants and phytonutrients – plant chemicals that boost our protection against everything from arthritis to cancer. Forget goji berries and moringa: here is a proper superfood for you. In short, your mother was right – eat your broccoli.