Purple Sprouting Broccoli
Photo ©Evie Saffron Strands
Most of the common vegetables around today have been eaten since before recorded history. One exception is Broccoli. Cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and Celery are also relative newcomers. Broccoli is a member of the Brassica family. Two native brassicas, one from the Mediterranean and one from Central Asia, are responsible for more than a dozen common vegetables on our plates. Cabbage, Kale, Brussels Sprouts, Cauliflower, Kohlrabi, Chinese Cabbage, Turnip, Broccoli Rabe and Broccoli are amongst them.
Broccoli, like Cauliflower and Romanesco, is harvested for its immature flowers. Broccoli Rabe, also known as Rapini and Cime di Rapa is not a true broccoli but the flowers that emerge from the thickened stalk of a variety of turnip (a brassica member). It’s also sold as ‘broccoletti di rape’, meaning ‘little sprouts of turnip’. It can be treated in the same way as true Broccoli.
Commercially, broccoli is available all year round but it’s really a cool-season vegetable that is at its best from late autumn through to early spring. The most appreciated variety in the UK is the Purple Sprouting Broccoli. If you grow it, you find it makes a wonderful cut-and-come-again plant. You simply snap off the small flower stalks. There is also a white-flowering variety, less often seen. The thick stalked Calabrese Broccoli variety takes over by July and goes on until October. When the plant cells are damaged, like all brassicas, broccoli releases bitter, pungent and strong-smelling compounds. The autumn and winter-grown vegetables are usually milder. These characteristics make broccoli a love-it or hate-it vegetable.
In normal years, when the Purple Sprouting Broccoli is coming to an end, the English Asparagus season is starting and both vegetables respond to simple treatment. Broccoli, like Asparagus, has an affinity with eggs. It’s also very good with anchovies, cheese and bacon. Streamed or boiled until just tender, the broccoli can be served with a jug of melted butter or hollandaise sauce, or tossed in a warm of emulsion of melted butter, garlic and tinned anchovies. You can do what the Romans do and give it the ripassata, or re-passed, treatment – boil the broccoli in salted water until tender, then drain; sauté a crushed garlic clove and chopped fresh or dried chilli in olive oil until the garlic softens; add the greens and a little salt and pepper, turning to coat the greens in the oil for 2-3 minutes. Eat just as it is, add some cooked pasta to the pan or pile it onto toast and top with a fried egg.
We expect to see over-wintered Purple Sprouting Broccoli around for another 3-4 weeks. It will be followed by mild Broccolini, also known as Tenderstem, which is actually a cross between broccoli and a Chinese kale, and there will be broccoli Calabrese too.