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Groundwork: Broccoli, the cabbage clan's star


In the greenhouse, vegetable seedlings await a date in the garden. A far-off prospect this winter. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

We are amazed -- well, I am amazed -- that so many staples of the kitchen derive from just one species of plant. The wild cabbage, Brassica oleracea, spawned modern-day kale, collards, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Romanesco broccoli, Chinese cabbage, and this week's star of the veggie garden, broccoli. This diversity is the product of centuries of plant selection by gardeners around the world.

So there: Your food ingredients don't come from supermarkets, they come from long-dead gardeners.

Broccoli was favored by the Romans, and like a lot of brassicas, was developed and perfected in what is now Italy.

It is popular to dislike broccoli, but that is from folk who are used to eating it in a watery and mushy state, or who slather raw florets with "dip" out of a plastic bottle. Like most other garden vegetables, fresh, well-grown broccoli in the hands of a competent cook is a gift to the palate and worth all the effort.

In comparison with its cousin, the cauliflower, broccoli is easier to grow and to bring successfully to crop.

Broccoli is one of the most heat-tolerant of the brassicas in the garden, but still benefits from a jump-start now so that it is ready for picking in early summer before the heat gets too bad.

At Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia, broccoli gets the same treatment as other cool-season vegetables started early indoors for planting in the garden about a month from now. The seed-starting mix is firmed into foam cups with drainage holes, the seed is sown on top, the whole thing is watered from the bottom, covered in plastic film and placed under growing lights. It is not too late to start broccoli or other cabbage relatives from seed.

The gardeners here are trying a half-dozen classic Italian broccoli varieties as well as two leaf broccolis (members of another branch of the the wild cabbage clan) and Chinese broccoli. The standard varieties include Green Goliath and Windsor, which are early-season hybrids bred for maturing in early summer. Taking the top bud will encourage the development of side sprouts.

Green Spring Garden's Cindy Brown grows broccoli as a summer crop. I think it would be worth saving some of the seed for starting in May for fall-maturing broccolis.

Broccoli doesn't get the cabbage worm to the same degree as its relatives, but it can suffer from a pest named the harlequin bug. The insect shows up en masse at Green Spring and feeds on its chosen victims. For that reason, Cindy wants the broccoli grown and harvested before mid-June, at which point she plants in their place transplants of such heat-loving veggies as lima beans, cowpeas or okra.

Curiously, that pretty vegetable garden flower, cleome, is a magnet for harlequin bugs, so Cindy has stopped growing it. If you want some floral accents, try zinnias or, egad, marigolds instead.

Cindy has the luxury of a greenhouse (actually a plastic covered poly house shaped like a Quonset hut) in which the broccoli seedlings are potted onto two-inch containers and allowed to develop robust root systems free of competition. Most of us don't have this, so the plants should be continued to be grown under lights after repotting until they can start to go outside in three weeks or so, to be hardened off for eventual planting in the ground proper. If it ever thaws and dries out this year. There's no doubt that the garden will be delayed well into April by this year's New England-style winter. Meanwhile, these little plants in little pots keep us going, along with the prospect of a summer harvest and Cindy's home-grown recipes.

-- Adrian Higgins

Broccoli With Garlic and Anchovies
4 servings

Here, anchovies add an amazing salty "oomph" and help transform a humble winter vegetable to an Italian contorno.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma's "Essentials of Italian Recipes and Techniques for Delicious Italian Meals" (2007).

1 1/2 pounds broccoli (stem ends trimmed), cut into florets; stalks peeled slightly, if desired, then cut crosswise into 4-inch pieces
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, cut into thin slices
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
6 oil-packed anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Fill a medium pot three-quarters full with water; bring to a boil over high heat.

Add the broccoli and salt; once the water returns to a boil, cook for 2 minutes until the broccoli is bright green. Drain and rinse under cool running water. Drain again, then pat dry with a clean dish towel.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper flakes; cook for about 1 minute, stirring, or until the garlic is lightly golden. Add the anchovies; cook for about 2 minutes, stirring until the anchovies have dissolved.

Add the broccoli and stir gently to coat. Cover and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on desired degree of doneness. Transfer to a warmed platter. Sprinkle with the cheese; serve immediately.

Per serving: 143 calories, 8 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 388 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  March 1, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork  
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