BROCCOLI HEADS are frustrated flower bouquets.
They grow in the center of a thick, knee-high stalk, between 10-inch leaves. When the plant matures its stems elongate and its green buds blossom into a bouquet of tiny yellow flowers--sort of like iced buttercups.
The flowers can live in the garden until they go to seed and die late in the summer, or until the stalk is pulled out to make room for a fall crop, says Allison Brown, executive director of GROW (Garden Resources of Washington). Unfortunately for the broccoli, though, most gardeners aren't interested in the bouquet. Peak flavor comes when the clusters are still in the green bud stage, just before they begin turning yellow and petals develop.
But the broccoli heads don't give up once the primary bouquet is cut, Brown says. Secondary heads immediately begin forming where the giant leaves meet the stalk. "The plant's hormones keep telling the plant to make seeds. By cutting off the flower buds you're frustrating the plant in its first attempt to make seeds, so it tries other side shoots," she says. Five or six of these side shoots continue forming for a month or longer, until the plant wears out, getting smaller and smaller until the last clusters are the size of a 50-cent piece.
It's a trade-off, however, when to cut the broccoli off the stem, says Brown. The longer it grows, the bigger the head, but you run the risk of the broccoli "bolting" into the flowering stage. The flowers won't hurt you, she says, but "somehow they just don't taste the same."
Perfect eating broccoli are dark green, tightly closed, compact bud clusters. They are cut some 8 to 10 inches down the stalk and should be tender and firm with fresh leaves. The leaves are edible but coarse, and can be used in soups if strained or pure'ed once cooked, or shredded Chinese-style for dark, crisp and delicious greenery. Broccoli that are flabby or bruised with open bud clusters are old and the flavor will have passed its prime.
Broccoli holds three days wrapped in plastic in the bottom of the refrigerator. To prepare it, trim the stalk to about 4 inches. Scrape the tough skin away from the stalk by running a sharp knife or peeler from the bottom up to the florets. Soak in cold salted water to cover to rid it of any insects that may be lurking ( 1/2 cup of salt for each gallon of cold water). The cold water also helps freshen the broccoli. Divide the broccoli by florets, cutting down the stalk with a knife, or cut into tiny horizontal pieces to use in stir-frys.
To freeze broccoli, blanch the florets for three to four minutes in boiling water, or steam them for five minutes. Cool and pack into rigid cartons and seal. Allow one-half pound for each serving; each medium bunch should allow for three to four servings.
Cook fresh broccoli quickly in one inch of rapidly boiling water for seven to ten minutes, just until the stalk is fork tender, or steam over boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes. To ensure even cooking make four or five tiny slits up the side of stalks larger than one inch around. Broccoli is easily overcooked and turns mushy, so keep an eye on the pan. Once cooked, drain the water off and return to the pan over high heat just for a moment to dry it out. Season it with salt, pepper and butter or, for a change, try dill, rosemary, lemon juice, chervil, oregano caraway seeds, nutmeg or curry powder.
Broccoli's roots are in Italy; the name stems from the Italian word brocco, meaning arm or branch. The Italian broccoli recipe that follows is a traditional Northern Italian dish that is beautiful and quick. The anchovy sauce is ready in 10 minutes, almost as long as it takes to bring the water to a boil to cook the fresh pasta. The broccoli-cheese rolls are dinner party appetizers and can be made early in the morning and held in the refrigerator until serving time. ITALIAN BROCCOLI AND PASTA (4 servings) 2 cups fresh broccoli florets, about 1 large head Salt 5 tablespoons olive oil 1 clove garlic, mashed 8 medium flat anchovy fillets, chopped (substitute 2 1/2 tablespoons anchovy paste) Freshly ground pepper to taste 1 tablespoon butter 3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 pound fettucine
Cook florets in 2 quarts boiling salted water for 7 minutes, or until barely tender. Drain and set aside.
Heat the oil in a skillet with the garlic and chopped anchovies. Cook over medium heat, mashing the anchovies with a wooden spoon until they dissolve into a paste. Add the broccoli and pepper to taste, turning and coating the broccoli as it saute's, just until it is heated through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt if needed. Cook the pasta in 2 quarts boiling water, just until al dente, and drain.
Add the sauce to the cooked pasta, with 1 tablespoon of butter and the cheese. Mix thoroughly. Serve immediately with additional cheese on the side. BROCCOLI CHEESE PUFFS (Makes 2 rolls) 1 cup chopped onion 3 tablespoons butter Salt and pepper 6 cups raw, chopped broccoli 2 eggs, beaten 2 cups fresh bread crumbs 2 cups grated cheddar Juice of one lemon 1 stick butter, melted 8 sheets phyllo 1/4 cup sesame seeds or wheat germ to sprinkle on top (optional)
Saute' onion in butter with 1/2 teaspoon salt. When onion is soft, add the broccoli. Salt lightly again, and saute' until broccoli is tender, but still bright green (about 8 minutes over medium heat). Season to taste. Combine eggs, bread crumbs, cheddar and lemon juice. Set aside.
On a large, clean counter, preferably Formica or wood, place one rectangle of phyllo. Brush it generously with melted butter. Place another leaf directly on top of the first and brush it with more butter. Continue layering and buttering until you have a pile of four sheets. Butter the top leaf, too.
Apply half of the filling on one short end. Leave at least 1 1/2 inches free at bottom and sides. Fold the ends over, and gently roll up the puff. Carefully lift the roll and transfer to a buttered cookie sheet. Repeat the procedure with the second roll. Brush with butter on rolled strudels. Sprinkle with sesame seeds or wheat germ. Slash with a serrated knife, through the top to the filling--3 or 4 slashes on the diagonal.
Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or until golden and crisp.
From "Moosewood Cookbook," by Mollie Katzen