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December 8, 2010

Long-Cooked Broccoli

Until recently, I regarded broccoli as my starter vegetable. It got me hooked, it did its job, and then I moved on to more interesting stuff. 

Broccoli was good to me. Through it, I discovered that a vegetable can be beautiful when it's cooked crisp to a vibrant color. It played a key role in the beef and broccoli dishes at the local Chinese restaurant in my hometown, lending crunch and brightness. It signified "formal," served on the side of every chicken or fish dish at special-occasion restaurants, smothered in rich cheese sauce. It was party food: I loved the way the florets held a hefty portion of ranch dip or hummus. 

It was sturdy, it was available year round. And, well...it became boring.

Other vegetables started to grab my attention, like the many new greens cropping up in the produce department: radicchio, micro greens, kale, and lacy, spiky leaves of frisee. Heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, and fava beans kept me busy. Plus, broccoli really didn't stand a chance once I met its slimmer, slightly bitter, but more exciting distant relative broccoli raab. Broccoli raab is on current restaurant menus, it tops flatbread pizzas, it's featured in food magazines! Where is broccoli these days? 

But then I happened upon a recipe for long-cooked broccoli as I was leafing through my copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters and immediately broccoli was back on my mind, like an estranged friend you suddenly bump into on Facebook. You might know how that works: You haven't thought about this person in years, then suddenly there they are, you see they've changed, you think of the good times, and you wonder. 

This recipe was different from others I'd seen; it was somewhat daring with its instruction to cook the broccoli until it's almost falling apart--as in, to my mind, overcooked. Who cooks vegetables until they're soft, the fibers breaking down, the color drained from them, these days? It didn't seem especially modern, but it did sound flavorful with the addition of garlic, chili flakes, anchovies, and olive oil. I decided to try it.

The preparation is ridiculously simple. Basically, you peel the broccoli stems of their tough skin and slice them thin, trim the florets into smallish pieces, and throw them all into a pot. You add water--or chicken or vegetable stock if you like--a generous amount of olive oil, several sliced garlic cloves, a sprinkling of chili flakes, and some salt and pepper. The recipe calls for finishing the dish with chopped oil-cured anchovies, but I add them to the pot at the start so they melt into the broccoli and infuse it with their brininess. You bring the whole thing to a boil, reduce the heat, and let it all simmer, covered for an hour until the broccoli starts to fall apart and the liquid nearly evaporates. Once cooked, you finish it with a generous squeeze of lemon and a healthy dose of fresh grated Parmesan cheese.

The result is layers of flavor--sharp garlic, a kick of spice from the chili flakes, briny anchovy, smooth, rich olive oil, sparkly lemon--all melded together into the soft, supple broccoli. You could even call it sophisticated. 

Give it a go. I hope, like me, you'll fall back in love with broccoli.

Long-Cooked Broccoli
From Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters (with a few changes)

The recipe calls for eight cloves of sliced garlic, but I use less--five or so--depending on the amount of garlic in the accompanying dishes. As I mentioned above, the recipe says you should fold the chopped anchovies into the broccoli after it's cooked, as a garnish. I prefer to put them into the pot with the uncooked broccoli and let them infuse it with their flavor. Finally, I use chicken or vegetable stock, if I have some on hand, rather than water as called for in the recipe, for added flavor.

2 pounds broccoli
5 cloves garlic (or more, to taste)
2 cups water (or chicken or vegetable stock)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
Salt and pepper
3 salt-packed anchovies
1 lemon
Freshly grated pecorino romano or Reggiano Parmesan cheese

With a swivel peeler or a sharp knife, remove the coarse leaves from the broccoli stems and peel away the tough skin. Slice the broccoli stems into 1/8-inch thick slices; trim the florets into smallish pieces. Put the slices and florets into a stock pot. Peel and slice the garlic and add to the pan along with the water (or chicken or vegetable stock, if you prefer), olive oil, and red pepper flakes. Roughly chop the anchovies and add them to the pot. Season with salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium/low, cover, and simmer for about an hour, or until the broccoli is extremely tender and beginning to fall apart and the liquid is nearly evaporated. Add more liquid if necessary as the broccoli cooks.

When the broccoli is done, transfer it to a serving dish, squeeze the lemon over and sprinkle with grated cheese.

Serves 4.

Leftovers: If you have leftovers, they make an excellent addition to pasta. Toss them with some spaghetti or any shape pasta, a splash of olive oil, some chopped black olives, toasted bread crumbs, and a shaving of Parmesan cheese for a quick dinner. 

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