How does a new vegetable with an Italian-sounding name get from a seed company in Japan to a kosher wedding in Baltimore? It's a 10-year tale of creativity, innovation, determination and a timbale in a demitasse cup. It's Broccolini's story. Not to be confused with broccoli rabe, rapini or Broccoflower, Broccolini is the latest vegetable created for the upscale market, a diversion for those growing restless with radicchio. It was bred from a cross, and its parents are an unlikely couple: broccoli and Chinese kale. In plant life, as in human life, offspring don't always inherit the best of mom and dad. Broccolini did good. Vibrant green (like broccoli) with long, slender stalks (like Chinese kale), it has a small head of buds at the top, in all looking like a slight, slimmed-down version of broccoli. If Ally McBeal were a vegetable, this is what she'd be. Perhaps you've spotted it at Sutton Place Gourmet or Giant Food. Or eaten it at Thyme Square, La Chaumiere or some other restaurant. More likely, you've never heard of it. "It's basically for consumers who eat a lot of vegetables and are bored," says Gina Nucci, spokeswoman for Mann Packing Co., the Salinas, Calif., grower and shipper that trademarked the name. Producing a popular vegetable is not unlike grooming a star. It takes good looks, marketing, exposure and luck. Broccolini hasn't hit the big time yet, but here's the story of its roots. THE IDEA A decade ago, in a downtown office building in Yokohama, Japan, Sakata Seed Inc. was having its annual research meeting. At one session, about 10 members of a team made up of plant breeders and experts in seed production, product development and marketing were brainstorming about the future of each crop, recalls Hideo Takahashi, director of Sakata's international division. And one of the topics up for discussion was how the company, one of the world's leading suppliers of broccoli seed, could expand that market even further. Broccoli grows best in cool temperatures, limiting its production to certain times of year and certain locations. To extend its season would mean adapting it to hotter climates. But how? One idea: Create an entirely new vegetable. The team wanted to retain broccoli's color and head of flowering buds. But it knew that Chinese kale, a close relative in the Brassica family, was more heat resistant than broccoli. And its tender stalks have a mild, sweet taste, unlike broccoli's often tough and thick, tasteless stem. "We thought: good idea. No waste. We can eat both," said Takahashi, referring to the hope that people would consume both the stalks and buds. So at Sakata's research facilities in Japan, the plant breeders went to work. Using hand pollination--not speeding things up with genetic engineering--it took them about seven years to get a decent hybrid. And here's why: With traditional breeding, thousands of genes get jumbled together, requiring scientists to keep recrossing the plants to weed out the undesirable traits. Genetic engineering, or biotechnology, gets right to the point: Breeders select the traits they want from an analysis of the plant's genetic information and move them directly into the genetic code of the other plant. Sakata christened its traditionally bred offspring Asparation, after the plant's asparagus-like stalks. Its other name, Broccolini, would come later. In the meantime, while planting trials were going on in Japan, Sakata was also shipping seeds of its new hybrid to one of its worldwide subsidiaries, Sakata Seed America Inc., in Morgan Hill, Calif. And that's how Bruce Sanbon got them. WEST COAST TIME "We're constantly looking for something that may set us apart," says Sanbon, president of Sanbon Inc., a small family-run grower and shipper in El Centro, Calif. So when Sakata gave Sanbon some of the new seeds to plant about five years ago, "we decided it might have potential." Sanbon had done research for Sakata before, and this experiment looked promising. But as with many things that seem to work in a laboratory or greenhouse, the translation to larger scale production turned out to be tricky. As Sanbon would discover, the new vegetable is very sensitive to variations in fertilizer and watering and to changes in the weather. In fact, the original idea to produce a heat-resistant version of broccoli was never realized: Asparation does best in temperate climes like the Salinas Valley, where 80 percent of the broccoli in the United States is grown. It doesn't like prolonged periods of heat. And "if it hasn't been grown and harvested correctly, it can turn out to be bitter and stringy," Sanbon said. "You have to be careful." The unpredictability of science meant that the hope of positioning Asparation as a hot-weather broccoli was kaput. Grown in ideal conditions, its sweet, mild taste, graceful appearance and edible stems are what set it apart. That's how it would have to be marketed. By 1996, after more than two years of trials and a lot of perseverance, Sanbon had a respectable product. He started sending out samples to supermarket chains and restaurants. Early last year, the new vegetable started appearing at Sutton Place Gourmet. "Anything new in the marketplace is pretty hot," says Kevin Keany, president of Keany Produce Co., a Landover, Md., wholesaler who supplies Sutton Place and local restaurants with the vegetable. In the past year, Keany has gone from selling five cases a week to about 60. Meanwhile, Sakata was interested in expanding production of Asparation. So it approached Mann Packing, a U.S. company in California's Salinas Valley that is Sakata's number one broccoli-seed buyer and the world's largest shipper of fresh broccoli. Mann started growing Asparation last year and began to sell it aggressively this fall and winter, marketing it as a sweeter, special- occasion version of broccoli that is 100 percent edible. Mann gave it a jazzy new name (Debbi Nucci, wife of the company's chief operating officer and a full-time mom in La Selva Beach, Calif., actually came up with the word Broccolini). Mann also took the vegetable for a visit to the Culinary Institute of America to see what the experts thought of its taste. So almost a decade after that team of company executives in Yokohama discussed expanding its broccoli seed market, a group of chefs at the CIA in Hyde Park, N.Y., sat around a conference table sampling the result. Steamed and seasoned with a little butter. Francesco Tonelli, who teaches classical French cuisine at the school, remembers it: "We were trying to evaluate the product and give our thoughts and feelings." And the conclusions? "We liked the flavor, we liked the appearance." Does it have a future? "If I had a restaurant, I think I would have a use for it. Just because it looks a little bit more elegant than broccoli." And what about supermarkets? "It all depends on telling consumers why they should pick it instead of broccoli . . . As long as they don't ask too much money . . . " GROWING PAINS Last week Sutton Place Gourmet was selling Broccolini for $2.99 a bunch. A bunch weighs about eight ounces. That works out to about $6 a pound. Sutton was selling broccoli crowns for $1.29 a pound. At Giant broccoli was selling for 79 cents a pound. That's a big difference. Broccolini was even substantially more expensive than Sutton's imported asparagus, at $3.99 a pound. In fact, Safeway spokesman Craig Muckle said the chain is not carrying it here "largely because its cost is prohibitive." Sanbon, the country's only other supplier besides Mann, is hopeful that prices will drop as supply increases. They'll "stay on the high end," he says, but "become much more attractive for consumers." Meanwhile, there's another potential problem. Those two different names. "It's definitely a hindrance," admits Sanbon, who sells the product under the name Asparation. "There's market confusion, but I don't know a long-term solution." To complicate matters, there's a third name: Tender Stem. That's what the London store Marks & Spencer is calling it, says Sakata's Takahashi, adding that the vegetable is now being grown in Europe, South Africa and Australia. "If we can have one name," says Takahashi, "that might be best." POSTSCRIPT In late November, Glorious Kosher catered a wedding at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The menu? Lemon-basil chicken, apricot-fruited wild rice, shiitake mushroom saute and a timbale of artichokes, carrots, herbs--and Broccolini, served in a demitasse cup. Charles Levine, who owns the Baltimore firm, had heard about the product "from some article" and thought it would work for him. Broccoli is too ordinary, he says, and broccoli rabe is too unfamiliar. So that's how a new vegetable with an Italian-sounding name got from a seed company in Japan to a kosher wedding in Baltimore. FINDING BROCCOLINI Now you see it, now you don't. So far, you won't find Asparation/Broccolini consistently at any restaurants or supermarkets. That's what happens when something is new, experimental, expensive and there's not yet a steady demand. So far, we've spotted it at Sutton Place Gourmet, which says it stocks the vegetable regularly at all its stores. And Giant Food reports that about half of its markets in the metropolitan area have started carrying it. (If you don't see Broccolini at your local Giant, says Giant spokeswoman Ruth Anthony, just ask the produce manager to order it for you.) Similarly Fresh Fields is selling the vegetable at most of its stores and can get it for you if you don't see it. And Magruder's, which has carried it periodically, reports it should have Broccolini this week. THE NEW VEGGIE: SORTING IT ALL OUT Lest you get confused in the broccoli bin, here's a mini primer to keep the green things straight. Asparation: This is the name trademarked by Sakata Seed Inc. for its new hybrid vegetable, a cross between Chinese kale and broccoli. Sanbon Inc., a California grower and shipper, sells the product under the name Asparation. Broccolini: This is the name trademarked by Mann Packing Co., another California grower and shipper, for that same new vegetable. Mann's full name for the product is Broccolini Brand Baby Broccoli. Sanbon and Mann are so far the country's only growers of Asparation/Broccolini. Chinese kale: Also called Chinese broccoli, gai lan, gai lon, gai larn or kai laarn, according to Mann's Web site, which describes it as having slender grayish to medium-green stalks, very dark green leaves and virtually no florets. Compared with traditional broccoli, Chinese kale has a longer stem and more leaves. Broccoli rabe or raab: Also known as rapini, broccoletti di rape or brocoletto, broccoli rabe is a nonheading variety of broccoli with more leaves, thinner stems and smaller flowers. It has an assertive taste, often described as bitter. Broccoflower: Bob Antle, co-chairman of the board of Tanimura & Antle, a California grower and shipper, was on a trip to Holland about 10 years ago and stumbled upon this bright green cauliflower. Antle brought the seed back to California, trademarked the name and started growing and selling it. Other producers jumped in, growing similar seed varieties and selling the vegetables under different names. The mini-craze flopped, and now Tanimura & Antle says it's the country's only remaining commercial producer of the cauliflower with the chartreuse head. COOKING WITH BROCCOLINI/ASPARATION Here are some Broccolini recipes developed for Mann Packing Co. by Peggy Fallon, a California cookbook author and cooking teacher. For more recipes and information, check out Mann's Web site at www.broccoli.com. (Of course, you can use Asparation, as it's called by Sanbon Inc., its other grower.) Asian Broccolini (4 to 6 servings) 2 tablespoons oyster sauce 2 tablespoons chicken broth 1 tablespoon teriyaki sauce 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon Asian sesame oil 1 pound (2 bunches) Broccolini Combine the oyster sauce, chicken broth, teriyaki sauce, sugar and sesame oil in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens. Remove from the heat and set aside. Bring 3 to 4 quarts water to a boil in a large pot. Add the Broccolini and cook for 3 minutes, or until just tender. Drain immediately in a colander and shake off excess water. Transfer to a platter and drizzle with the warm soy dressing. Per serving (based on 6): 33 calories, 3 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 2 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 323 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber Grilled Chicken Salad With Broccolini, Goat Cheese and Toasted Pecans (4 servings) For the dressing and chicken: 1/2 teaspoon marjoram 1/2 teaspoon basil 1/2 teaspoon rosemary 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 3 tablespoons sugar Salt to taste 1/3 cup red wine vinegar 1/2 cup olive oil 4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 1 1/2 pounds) For the salad: 1/2 pound (1 bunch) Broccolini 3/4 pound mixed lettuce 2 pears, cored and sliced (use red-skinned, if available) 1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese 3/4 cup toasted chopped pecans For the dressing and chicken: Combine the marjoram, basil, rosemary, black pepper, sugar and salt to taste with the vinegar and olive oil in a jar or bowl and mix well. In a shallow dish, coat the chicken breasts with 1/4 cup of the dressing. Reserve the remaining dressing for the salad. Cover the chicken breasts with plastic wrap and marinate for 1 to 2 hours in the refrigerator. When ready to cook, grill or broil the chicken breasts until cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. Slice the chicken breasts crosswise into thick strips. While chicken is cooking, prepare the salad: Bring a pot of water to a boil, and cook the Broccolini for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop additional cooking. Line 4 plates with the lettuce and arrange the Broccolini, pear slices and chicken strips on top. Sprinkle with the goat cheese and nuts. Drizzle with the reserved dressing and serve. Per serving: 784 calories, 51 gm protein, 31 gm carbohydrates, 53 gm fat, 123 mg cholesterol, 12 gm saturated fat, 327 mg sodium, 7 gm dietary fiber Broccolini With Honey-Mustard Dipping Sauce (4 to 6 servings) 1/2 cup sour cream 1 tablespoon honey mustard 8 ounces (1 bunch) Broccolini 3 ounces thinly sliced proscuitto or ham In a small bowl, combine the sour cream and honey mustard until well blended. Cook the Broccolini in boiling salted water for 30 seconds. Drain, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the proscuitto or ham slices lengthwise into 1-inch strips. Tightly wrap 1 or 2 proscuitto strips diagonally around each Broccolini stalk, leaving about 1 inch of stalk showing at the bottom. Arrange on a platter with the sour cream dipping sauce. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Per serving (based on 6): 69 calories, 4 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 222 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber Linguine Broccolini (4 servings) 3/4 cup butter 3 tablespoons flour 2 cups dry white wine 1 1/2 cups half-and-half 1 pound (2 bunches) Broccolini, cut into thirds crosswise 12 ounces fresh linguine, cut into thirds 1 cup cherry tomatoes 2 1/2 cups (about 4 ounces) fresh basil leaves 1 cup grated Romano cheese Salt and pepper to taste To make the sauce, melt the butter in a large saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook until bubbly. Whisk in the wine, stirring until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the half-and-half and cook, stirring until thickened, about 4 minutes. Keep warm. Meanwhile, cook the Broccolini in boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Cook the linguine according to the package directions. When the linguine is ready, add the tomatoes and basil to the sauce and, over medium-low heat, cook until the basil is limp, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the linguine, Broccolini, Romano cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine. Serve immediately, passing additional cheese and/or additional freshly ground black pepper. Per serving: 949 calories, 26 gm protein, 67 gm carbohydrates, 58 gm fat, 253 mg cholesterol, 35 gm saturated fat, 414 mg sodium, 7 gm dietary fiber