Vegetable Spotlight on Broccoli

Broccoli, I find to be an essential cool-season vegetable to include in the garden. Little kids get excited about eating “little trees” if you are a clever enough parent to be able to convince your children they are giants who can take a forest out in one meal. My own kids never fell for this, probably because I myself wasn’t that big of a fan – that was until I started to grow my own broccoli.

A member of the cabbage family, its distinct flavor differs slightly depending upon the cultivar and there are so many different heirloom and hybrid varieties to choose from. A complete spectrum of flavor from raw to cooked. Please Note: It should go without saying that the flavors you experience in growing your own do not compare with the flavors of the fruits and vegetables that are commercially grown. Commercial fruits and vegetable varieties are selected based on ability to be harvested and transferred long distances – flavor is not considered.

Broccoli is though to have been from the Eastern Mediterranean area, Crete or Cyprus. It was the Etruscans considered horticultural geniuses, who engineered broccoli from a cabbage relative. An important part of the Italian diet since the Roman Empire it made its way to England by the mid 18th century and was referred to as Italian asparagus. The English word for broccoli is derived from the Italian word ‘broccolo’, meaning ‘the flowering crest of a cabbage’.

The avid gardener, Thomas Jefferson brought broccoli seeds to Monticello in the late 1700s, although he was the not the first to bring in over to America. However, it didn’t reach its popularity in the United States until the 1920s when the Arrigo Brothers, immigrants from Italy planted a test crop in California in 1923. By fall 1924, they shipped ice-packed broccoli by rail to Boston and other east coast markets and the rest is history.

A member of the brassica family of cruciferous vegetables, nutritionally broccoli is considered vegetable royalty, as it is consistently on the top ten healthy food recommended by nutritionists, medical doctors, naturopaths and researchers. It is loaded with vitamins A and C, Calcium and full of antioxidant sulforaphane. One cup of broccoli contains 31 calories and contains 2g of protein, 2 g of fiber, 288 g of potassium, 43 mg of calcium, 81 mg of vit. C, plus folate, magnesium, phosphorus, beta-carotene, vitamin A and 1277 mgs of lutein and zeaxanthin, good for eye health.[1]

Broccoli Companions and Foes - text describes what works well in the garden with broccoli and what does not.

Broccoli loves cool weather and should be added to the garden either by seed or transplant anytime from late April to May or late July and August to get either an early summer harvest or fall crop respectively. Plants will thrive in a fertile rich, well-drained soil. I have been very successful growing broccoli in a container, a raised garden bed as well as in our Tower Garden. Since broccoli can be a heavy feeder it’s good to know what will work well in the garden with it. Good companions to broccoli include basil, beets, bush beans, celery, cucumbers, dill, hyssop, lettuce, marigolds, mint, nasturtiums, onions, potatoes, radishes, rosemary, sage, spinach, thyme and tomatoes. So, you have lot of options to choose from. Broccoli coupled with celery and onions is said to improve the flavor of your broccoli. Whatever you do, keep it away from grapes, mustard, rue and your strawberries – these guys don’t play well together in the garden.

Depending on the variety selected broccoli can take 60-95 days to mature. I always look for the quick maturing 60-75-day varieties since I have such a short season up here in my zone 5 garden. Pests to watch out for – aphids, flea beetles, cabbage worms and cutworms to name few. The broccoli heads should grow in to tightly formed, compact heads with firm stalks, not rubbery. Harvest the broccoli before there are any signs of yellow buds emerging from the flower heads, otherwise the broccoli will taste bitter. Once the main shoot is harvested side shoots will continue to grow and should be harvested before flowering. To harvest broccoli simply cut the heads below the branching where the stem is singular and solid.

Every part of the plant is edible. The stalks should be peeled of their fibrous skin and there are nutrients to be had in the leafy greens as well.  One of the allures to growing broccoli is that it can be cooked and prepared so many different ways – steamed, sautéed, roasted, grilled or raw! This extreme versatility along with its health benefits has escalated broccoli consumption over the last 30 years threefold.

Some of our favorite ways to prepare broccoli from our garden:

Broccoli with Golden Garlic and Lemon

1 bunch broccoli, about 1 pound

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 garlic cloves, cut into thin slivers

½ tsp salt

1/8 tsp pepper

3 tbsp fresh lemon juice

Steam broccoli in a large saucepan of boiling salted water 5-6 minutes or until crisp tender. Arrange in a serving dish and cover and keep warm.

Warm olive oil over low heat In a small frying pan. Stir in garlic and cook slowly until golden brown, careful not to burn, 1-2 minutes. Add salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Pour over broccoli and serve.

[1] The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, Jonny Bowen, Ph.D., C.N.S.

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