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Adventures in food for curious cooks.

There's More to Broccoli

Mostly Plants Series

How to use whatever produce you find at your farmers market or CSA. Roots to leaves and flowers, here's how to cook with what you've got.

There's More to Broccoli

Lynley Jones

Broccoli leaves, stems and flowers, as well as the florets.

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You Know How to Cook Broccoli

A bunch of broccoli stems and blossoms from my CSA. The tender stems (near the flowers) are edible, along with the blossoms and the leaves.

Broccoli? Puh-leese! We already know what to do with broccoli. It's one of the easiest vegetables on the planet to cook, and it's also delicious raw, dipped in anything from homemade hummus to ranch dressing poured from a bottle. And just to make sure literally anyone can cook broccoli, grocery stores sell the florets pre-cut, in plastic bags designed to go straight into the microwave oven. Congratulations: if you have the ability to push buttons, you can cook broccoli!

And that's great! I used to joke with a certain friend of mine that no matter what he was eating, from Chinese to Italian, "chicken and broccoli" would be a safe bet. Broccoli is the gateway vegetable; easy to cook, easy to eat, available everywhere, all year round.

The Rest of Broccoli

But very few of us have experience cooking anything other than the florets (which are delicious). And when you think about it, that's awfully wasteful. Farmers work hard in the soil and sunlight to produce that big beautiful plant full of goodness, only to have grocery stores (and us) put most of it in the trash.

Broccoli Leaves

Heads of broccoli with some leaves attached.

At a farmers' market or CSA, you may come across a head of broccoli with lots of leaves still attached. Taste them raw and you'll discover they taste like ...broccoli! You can treat them like any other cooking green, and saute them in a pan with a little olive oil, garlic, onion, salt and pepper. Cooking them may also bring out some bitter notes, so I usually also like to include a pinch of red pepper flakes and/or a squeeze of lemon to brighten and lighten them up.  

Of course, there are more florets than leaves! And as with any green, the leaves will shrink significantly in volume when cooked. So think of sauteed broccoli leaves as an ingredient in some other dish: strewn over toast with an egg on top, or folded into an omelette, or stuffed into a chicken breast, or chopped up and tossed with pasta.

In my recipe below, instead of cooking them I dress the leaves with a peppery-champagne vinaigrette and lots of Parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and then douse them with a generous drizzle of lemon juice and pair them with sweet cherry tomatoes to brighten the finished dish.

Broccoli Flowers

Close-up of broccoli blossoms.

The reason we call the tops of broccoli "florets" is because they are actually made up of lots and lots of tiny flower buds! Each of those nubby little bumps is an unopened flower. If you have ever left them too long on your countertop or in the fridge, you might have noticed that they begin to veer from dark green to light green to yellow-ish as all those little buds get closer and closer to opening.

As the broccoli plant grows, and the main mass of florets develops, other parts of the plant will grow tall and blossom into flower. The flowers are edible, and they taste like ...broccoli! They are delicate, and best sprinkled over the top of a finished dish as I've done in this week's recipe.

Broccoli Stems

The stems of broccoli are also edible of course. You can leave the florets attached to large portions of the stems when you cook them, or you can cook the stems separately. Peel the tough outer skin away, then mince them into cubes and brown them in butter and garlic, or use the vegetable peeler to turn the whole stalk into thin strips and toss them with vinaigrette. Or of course, you can blend them into broccoli soup.