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The Broccoli Bogeyman

choppin' broccoli

Appropriate material warning: In honor of the Supreme Court’s latest quagmire, off-color political comments and remarks on food preferences ahead. No actual body parts mentioned…well, not much. More implied than actually mentioned. Nor will you find much actual swearing, more’s the pity. Nobody, but nobody, gets called a dirty name such as the male equivalent of whatever might have been slung around on a certain talk show whose host contested female citizens’ rights to testify before Congressional committees. Or not much of a dirty name–though some might say it’s implied. And it is. To your healthcare!

Antonin Scalia–and I’m just saying it for what it’s worth, here–what an embarrassment to the United States.  First he squats instead of recusing himself in a case where he clearly has a conflict of interest, namely that he went hunting and dining with the defendant (then-Vice President Dick “New Heart” Cheney), then he blames broccoli for the faults of an imperfect but workable health care plant. I mean plan.

I know this commentary is coming about 2 weeks after the fact, but it’s taken me the full two weeks–one of them Passover–to decide that it really was up to me to fight back. Against Scalia, against broccoli abuse, and apparently against my computer’s quirks, one of which was to eat the camera card and spit out a coupla bent socket pins. Because for a proper rebuttal to the broccoli question, I need incriminating evidence in the form of photos. Exhibit A, as it were.

Whether you think health insurance and the Affordable Care Act should be available to everyone in this country or not, or whether or not you think you personally need health coverage that doesn’t inspect you down to your toenails before charging you extra, the true question here is, why is broccoli always the Republican go-to monster under the bed? Perhaps because their leaders faithfully follow George Bush père‘s overwhelmingly whitebread fear of vegetables, particularly the dreaded broccoli, while adopting his stated  preference for pork rinds?

Let’s put that under the microscope first, shall we? True story:

My first year at university,  two of my sarcastic and adventurous dorm mates bought a packet of pork rinds to try out as political investigation material. This was in 1981, when GHW Bush was the new veep for Reagan, and he’d announced both his loathing for broccoli and his love of pork rinds, as though any of us needed to know that. Eyewatering. Anyway, my friends decided they had an obligation to test out Bush’s aesthetics personally before condemning him. So…they moseyed on down to the university district’s 7-11 store and purchased some test samples. Then they came back to our suite and conducted the (not double-blind, which I’m sure they quickly regretted) taste test with all the rest of us as an audience. About 30 witnesses in all.

Beth and Bill faced each other across our suite’s livingroom floor. Somebody counted down, and they ripped open the pork rind baggie. Next countdown–reach into the bag and select a pork rind at random. They shuddered briefly–the aroma had reached them–but regrouped. This was for the record. For science. For Truth and the American Way. They braced themselves.

On the count of three they each bit into their pork rind of choice.  The reaction was instantaneous. The verdict unanimous.

“Wow, they really do taste exactly as fecal as they smell!” chirped Beth as her face went very, very red. It was clear she was trying not to skew the results by vomiting and giggling simultaneously. Bill didn’t hesitate to spit copiously into our trashcan for several minutes, and we couldn’t blame him. We just told him to take it with him and not leave the damning evidence with us. Chain of custody rules, you know.

Anyway, if Mr. Scalia’s broccophobic remarks are reflective of the officially sanctioned GOP line when it comes to vegetabalia and taste preferences, what our intrepid reporters discovered 31 years ago does suggest that we’d all be better off skipping their national convention banquet this summer.

Back to broccoli. What is so demonic here? It’s actually a popular vegetable these years (quirkily informative market statistic needed, desperately needed, because very, very few Food Network cookbooks contain any recipes for it).

Statistic, statistic, statistic–oh. Here! Average US per-person consumption of fresh broccoli has quadrupled since 1980.  Outpacing frozen by a lot. And the total US market is worth upwards of half a billion dollars a year. And we supply most of Canada’s and Japan’s broccoli. And yet we still import from Mexico, Equador and so on for frozen because the labor’s cheaper.  Demand for broccoli is actually pretty high.

So Scalia, and the rest of the GOP faithful, have really gotten hold of the wrong end of the stem with this broccoli blame game. And all the more surprising to wave it around like that since Scalia is Italian-American.

Somebody tell me when the Italians are supposed to have started fearing broccoli? Even its name is Italian–according to the agriculture info sites, they first brought it over to the States in 1923.

Maybe his parents were rotten cooks? Does he hate garlic too or something? The shame, the shame…


Broccoli–the regular, not the rabe–is, tell the truth and nothing but, easy to abuse culinarily. Mostly by overcooking and then dumping it on the dinner plates unflavored and unloved, graying, sulfurous, lukewarm. Foul color, worse odor, unbelievably bendy and dank. Not exactly a taste explosion.

But broccoli doesn’t have to taste like whatever you might remember from your high school cafeteria, if you’re old enough to remember when they actually served vegetables instead of pizza with a side of fries. And you don’t have to eat it raw either. You have choices. Options, as it were.

Given my lack of respect for the traditional standing around waiting for pots of water to boil, my usual recommendation is just to microwave broccoli. Cut up a couple of stalks into florets and coins, drizzle with a scant quarter-inch of water, cover and shake once or twice, then nuke for 2-3 minutes. It comes out jewel-green, crisp-tender, and clean-tasting, fast. In a word, perfect.

This is my preference because it’s quick, keeps the broccoli looking and tasting fresh, takes almost no thinking, and you can eat it plain or with a variety of salad dressings or sauces–mustard/yogurt, tehina, vinaigrette, bleu cheese, ranch? Tzatziki–all good. And quick. Did I mention quick?

But there are exceptions. As for cauliflower and brussels sprouts, broccoli can actually be cooked longer without ruining it. If you do it right, braising it with garlic and olive oil and a little pecorino, the way they serve it in the humbler, 1950s-style family-run Italian restaurants of Philadelphia and Baltimore, this kind of broccoli can be really, really good, despite being softer and a lot less green than I usually think it should be. Hit it up with some hot pepper flakes and fennel seed at the table and it’s addictive, even though it’s not as fashionable as as the  decorator-priced broccoli rabe or rapini or broccolini, lightly tossed with garlic and olive oil, that you see in the food mags and upscale restaurants on the west coast. And leftover broccoli with garlic reheats in the microwave in a minute for lunch the next day with a little hot pepper and fennel, some mozzarella shredded over the top, and a split  ciabatta roll in the toaster oven ready to create a sandwich from it.

So what I’ve decided to do, in honor of the first week of leavened bread after Passover, is to combat broccophobia (and, simultaneously, porcophilia, which sounds exactly like the deadly sin it is) in my own highly imitable way. After all, I’ve demonstrated how-to-squeeze-an-eggplant. I can do this. I’m ready.

In recent years it’s become popular foodie-speak to “break down a whole pig”. I dunno about you, but I find that distinctly unappetizing. Too heavy and greasy, too much blood, guts, nether parts…and the smell! Somehow neither Anthony “Nasty Bits” Bourdain (I’m pretty sure he picked that title just so someone would give him such an entirely cool nickname) nor Mark “Guanciale is the Better Bacon Because I Heart Italy” Bittman (much geekier nickname, but at least it name-checks the big food faves) have succeeded in convincing me  that such activities are really anywhere near the orgiastic gourmet adventure they depict. Feh.

So forget pigs, because this ain’t Chicagoland. Or Washington.

Naaah. It’s California, so I’m gonna break down a broccoli–it’s scarier (apparently). Afterwards, you tell me: is this a reason to deny 40 million Americans basic healthcare coverage? Try not to cut yourself before answering. Try this yourself and then gift Mr. Scalia with the leftovers. Maybe he’ll decide to retire to Kansas or someplace and pretend he’s never even heard of garlic.

How to Break Down a Broccoli

Step 1: Buy broccoli with the stalks left on. It’s always cheaper than the broccoli “crowns”, the stalk is good eatin’ if you know how to deal with it, and you get more useable green for your green. Those plastic bags of precut florets are right out. Sky-high-ripoff expensive and not fresh. Pick firm stalks with tightly packed dark green florets and no brown spots. Buy as many as you need for the dinners you plan to serve that week and have room for in the fridge. Figure a 6- to 8-inch stalk with florets 3-4 inches across will serve about 3 people pretty well.

Step 2: Store the broccoli unwashed in a plastic bag in a dry part of the fridge–the vegetable bin should be okay if you’ve kept it fairly clean and it doesn’t get hypercold–you don’t want to retrieve your broccoli half-frozen, you want it to stay fresh for several days.

Step 3: Wash the broccoli you’re using right before you cook it.

Step 4: Cut it up. A paring knife or serrated, thin-bladed steak knife should do the trick. If you’re braising whole stalks, just cut about an inch off the bottom end of each stalk. If you want florets–it’s about 1 minute total to cut up. Really not worth the stale supermarket baggies.

Cutting florets off the broccoli stalk

Step 4a: Set the broccoli stalk florets-down in a microwaveable soup bowl or other microwaveable container and cut the florets off the stalk. Rotate the stalk as you cut.

Splitting the florets

Step 4b: Separate the florets by making a few cuts where they join the base of the crown. Keep the stalk; that’s next.

Peeling the broccoli stalk from the bottom end upward

Step 4c: Peel and slice the stalk. This is an underappreciated part of the broccoli (see Step 1), and it only takes a few seconds to prepare. Slice off about an inch from the tough bottom end of the stalk, then take the knife and pare the stalk from the bottom back up to the branched top.

peeling the broccoli stalk

Nick into the peel at the bottom edge, hold it between the blade and your thumb, and just pull up as though you were peeling a banana. It should take the tough fibrous layer off in strips, leaving you with a tender green core that slices easily into coins.

the peeled broccoli stalk sliced into coins

Step 5: Cook the broccoli–my preference is microwaving (see method above). If you want to braise or stew stalks of broccoli with garlic cloves and olive oil until it’s really soft, you might want to try one of two methods. The first is Marcella Hazan’s from 1973, and basically you peel the stalks with the florets on, then split the stalks in half lengthwise. Boil 7-10 minutes in several quarts of salted water until a fork will pierce them (or in my lexicon, skip all that and just microwave a few minutes covered with a quarter-inch of water in the container), then brown a little garlic in olive oil in a frying pan, remove the garlic and saute the broccoli a few minutes.

Or there’s an Italian Jewish method called sofegae–“suffocated” vegetables, an oil-braising method that probably originated from Turkey (as in eggplant/pepper cooked salads and so on). Peel and split the broccoli stalks lengthwise, heat a couple of cloves of split or minced  garlic in olive oil over medium-low heat for a couple of minutes, add the broccoli and saute a few minutes more. Then add half a cup of water or broth to the pan, cover tightly and turn the flame down to low. Braise about 20-30 minutes, checking once in a while that the water hasn’t completely evaporated.

6 Responses

  1. Huh. While not having a Bush Sr. level hatred of broc, it’s not my fav. I must confess I prefer it smothered in cheese, or tempura’d. Both of which kind of defeat the healthiness.

    I have a nice recipe which is actually ancient Roman (makes gesture at Fat Tony S.) which involves garlic, olive oil, red wine, and couscous. Admittedly, you could cook anything with that and it’d taste good.

    • Good to hear from you (I haven’t posted for longer than I realized–time’s getting away from me this spring). I think any of those options would be delicious. Maybe, as you say, a little too delicious… I’m “in recovery” from a week of Too Much Matzah at this point (although I managed not to gain anything signif, don’t know how that happened considering how many boxes we got through) so plain broccoli, maybe with mustard dressing, is about my speed to make up for it all. Or so I tell myself! But actually, right before Passover, while my husband was away at a conference, I took my kid for a last-chance just-us-girls dinner out at the Whole Foods (yes, we’re glamorous, but it was close by, had actual vegetables, and was pretty good food for the time/cost factor). The salad bar happened to feature barely-cooked broccoli florets, blanched bright-green and tossed with the requisite olive oil and roasted garlic. I think that was the entire ingredient list. It was absolutely delicious, and I only got a little of it because my daughter scarfed more than half. So from my point of view it was definitely the way to go. I have to try it at home from now on, though, because let’s face it; broccoli and garlic shouldn’t be at salad bar prices of 8 bucks a pound, not on a normal weeknight…

      • You make me a nice matzah brei and I’ll make you some broccoli.

      • I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a nice matzah brei, or at least not after the 8th day of Passover, when we’re horribly sick of matzah and still have two boxes left, but okay, you’re on. I might have to mail it to you–would a Priority flat rate box do it? Or would the USPS correctly identify the matzah brei as something potentially dangerous in large quantities?

      • Pretty sure it’d show up as some sort of chemical explosive thingy.

        It is a much more fun deal to get to eat egg-shaped chocolates.

      • Agreed–but have you tasted chocolate matzah toffee crunch? Like ABC breakup, but with matzah instead of almonds. Has to be made at home–matzah sheets baked in butter/sugar caramel a few minutes, then taken out of the oven and sprinkled with chocolate chips that melt over top as it cools. How you get it back off the pan I don’t know (check http://www.davidlebovitz.com for a recipe if you’re interested). Way over the top wicked. I had to stop at about 7 pieces when one of the seder guests and her daughters brought 2 full gallon bags of the stuff–who knows how much more they had at home. Good thing those kids play soccer. I am NEVER allowed to make it myself. I also like chocolate easter eggs When they’re chocolatey enough, maybe, but they’re usually too sweet (my daughter’s always accusing me of wishing they’d put Baker’s Unsweetened inside–hey, with that caramel filling, it could work!) Love the plastic eggs with the iridescent excelsior, though. I prefer seeing what everyone’s made of the psychedelically pink and yellow Peeps. Beats eating them (hate marshmallows–again, way too sweet). The Washington Post runs a contest each year–this year, no surprise, the entries got a little political with staged debates and town halls and so on. Blue suits, red ties. Scary. Even a few toupees. If that doesn’t give you indigestion, I don’t know what would.

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