Broccoli, despite never capturing the interest of the eldest President Bush, is a tasty veggie and very versatile. It does seem to be one of those vegetables that makes people take opposing positions. Hubby hates it because it upsets his tummy, while I love the stuff. When you eat broccoli, you are eating the undeveloped flower head. Most people discard the leaves, but they are edible and often sweet. I like to add them to cream of broccoli soup.
Native to the Mediterranean, broccoli was a favorite of the Etruscans (they lived in what is now Tuscany) and was featured in the writings of Pliny the Elder (circa 23-79 AD). Catherine de’ Medici introduced it to the French when she married Henry II, and from there it moved into England, where it was known as Italian asparagus. Jefferson tinkered with it at Monticello, and it finally caught on in the US when immigrants from southern Italy brought seeds to their new homeland around 1920.
Broccoli lends itself to wintering over and can be treated almost like a perennial vegetable, at least for a few years. The key is not to let it flower. The familiar single head is the most recognizable form. However, once you harvest the main head, many broccoli plants will provide you with a second harvest of smaller heads from side shoots. Sprouting broccoli never really forms a head, but is more like broccoli rabe or rapini – you cook both stems and flowers. It’s a cool season crop and winters over quite well if it has enough size by the time the first frost hits. It’s a heavy feeder and likes moisture. If you skimp on the watering, it will get bitter.
- Waltham 29 – A youngster, it’s only been around since the 1950s. Developed by the University of Massachusetts Waltham Field Station, which is how it got its name. Good flavor, some side shoots.
- Calabrese – this Italian heirloom crossed the Atlantic in the late 1800s. It’s a good one for an initial harvest and then lots of side shoots.
- De Cicco – another Italian, also good for side shoots and came over either on the same boat or at least about the same time as Calabrese.
- Purple Sprouting – this one’s English, and grown as much for the leaves as the shoots and small heads. Winters over very well and starts growing in early spring. In fact, you usually plant it in fall for a spring harvest. Flavor is a little different than the heading types, more like rapini.
- Rapini – Some people think this has a taste reminiscent of asparagus, and the Italians actually call it broccoli asparagus. It’s a spring-only delicacy, at least in my neck of the woods.
- Romanesco – clearly a member of the same family, this one has trouble deciding whether it’s a cauliflower or a broccoli. It has an unusual structure that makes me think of coral.
If I could only have one, I would take any of the first three: Waltham 29, Calabrese or De Cicco. They’re equally productive and all have good flavor.
As far as nutrition goes, broccoli is higher in protein than many veggies – weighing in at 29%. It’s also full of fiber. You might not think of green veggies when you’re looking for vitamin C, but a half-cup or broccoli will give you almost 70% of your daily requirement – lots better than oranges. It also contains significant amounts of vitamin K, folate, potassium, manganese and iron, as well as cancer-fighting sulforaphane and Indole-3-carbinol. You’ll also find lutein, zeaxanthin and beta carotene (think eye health) and the antioxidants kaempferol and quercetin.