It's Broccoli, but Even Better

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 19, 2006

Something funny was going on in the broccoli patch. From 10 feet away it was business as usual: row upon row of beautiful, vase-shaped plants, their wide, blue-green leaves reveling in the cool, sunny fall weather. But on closer inspection, three rows were different. Instead of forming tight, firm mounds of tiny green buds -- the classic head of broccoli -- those plants were making more-open heads composed of little round, leafy balls. Both the central heads and the many side shoots showed the same pattern.

"What's happening to the broccoli?" I asked my husband, who had planted it. He explained that he was trying a new variety called Piracicaba, from Fedco Seeds ( http://www.fedcoseeds.com/ , 207-873-7333). The catalogue (next available in December for 2007) had made it sound irresistible, so good you could eat it raw. This proved to be true. All the parts I sampled raw were sweet, mild and tender. I took a bowlful back to the house and steamed it for lunch. Equally delicious! It needed just a few minutes of cooking, and since so much of it was leaf, bud and narrow stem, there was less risk of overcooking the tips before the stalks softened. And the buds didn't disintegrate in the pan.

I watched for a week or so, curious to see what would happen if the plants went to seed. Some heads became even looser and the little balls opened up, becoming clusters of small leaves. This was surprising, because normally at this stage yellow flowers would start to form. You can spot those pinpoints of yellow even in a fairly tight broccoli head, and then must race to cut the head before it blooms. Harmless and healthful as those flowers might be, they turn an unappetizing brown color when cooked.

Searching deep within the little cupped leaves, I found blossoms, all right, but they were tiny. Fascinated, I compared the Piracicaba with the standard broccoli in the next bed, an older plant that was waving its yellow plumes proudly, to the delight of late-season pollinators. In its case, flower growth had rapidly outstripped the leaf growth on the stem. But in the Piracicaba stalk the opposite had happened: The flowers stayed small and the leaves that surrounded them (properly called sepals) enlarged.

I phoned Fedco to find out more. The company's founder, C.R. Lawn, said it had taken a bit of convincing for him to carry the crop. Reports of the staff grazing it raw in the trial beds made him try it himself. Now, after just two years, it's already a hit with home gardeners. Not surprising. People who regularly go out into the garden with their baskets and bring the harvest right back to the kitchen often see qualities in a vegetable that others miss.

Many things excited me about this new addition to the garden. The sweet, delicious flavor. (Admittedly, I tasted it in October, when most green crops are sweet and mild.) The unobtrusive flowers. The uniformity of texture. Swiping a raw Piracicaba sprig through a bowl of dip beats the heck out of stabbing the dip with a hard stump of regular broccoli. This vegetable swoops up creamy blue cheese the way a pastry brush swoops up butter. And speaking of butter, isn't it time for bagna cauda , that wonderful blend of hot butter, garlic and anchovy for which the city of Turin is famous? It's a cold-weather dip for late-season vegetables -- like broccoli.

Another plus: When you eat those loose green sprigs, you're eating a little bundle of dark-green foliage, rich in vitamins, calcium and folate. Cooks rarely consider broccoli leaves, though I'll often toss a few small ones into the pot. But even fairly large Piracicaba leaves -- say, eight inches long -- make excellent greens.

I learned from the variety's wholesale source that it had been developed for heat tolerance some years ago at the University of Piracicaba in Brazil. In trials in California, it has produced heads at temperatures in the 90s. (Typically, brassicas bolt when it gets hot.) Impressive, indeed. It seemed our new crop might be as happy in August as it clearly was in October. Still intrigued, I shared my experience with Frank Morton, a breeder in Philomath, Ore., who values the unusual. He speculated that it might be a cross with couve tronchuda (Portuguese cabbage) or "one of those Portuguese collardy things." He himself has crossed many brassicas with one another, with interesting results, and cited some broccoli-kale crosses in which the foliage was very tender and the flower heads leafy. "Petals are just specialized leaves," he said. "It wouldn't be surprising to find a broccoli mutation in which the leaves grew faster." Some people compare the plant to broccoli raab, but in fact it is quite unlike that plant (a different brassica species), whose leaves look more like turnip greens.

Right now, there's quite a lot of grazing going on in our patch, as others discover the tasty new outdoor snack. I'd hoped to watch for a while to see whether conspicuous seedpods developed, but many stems have disappeared. It could be the deer, but at this point everyone is a suspect.

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