While Californians are lucky to enjoy a wide range of fruits and veggies year round, there are a couple of crops that are a real treat when they come back in season. In December, broccoli is one of those long awaited (and well worth the wait!) crops.
California is the nation’s top broccoli grower, producing 90% of U.S. broccoli! The late winter and early spring farmers markets are prime time for broccoli, with winter broccoli tasting especially great.
In cold weather, broccoli flavor peaks. Cool weather concentrates the sugars in broccoli (in much the same it does for artichokes and Brussels sprouts), and also yields more tender stalks. The color also seems to be a deeper green in winter broccoli. Cold weather just brings out the best in broccoli!
The broccoli at the farmers market now is tender and sweet enough to be enjoyed raw or chopped finely and made into a salad with other seasonal vegetables like diced carrot and cucumber. While the florets are everybodies favorite, don’t forget to save the stalks to peel and use other ways. Broccoli stalks are good raw or steamed and served with soy sauce (which goes well in a lunch box for kids or adults). Or, make a great soup with the stalks. The stalks also shred well for a different kind of slaw, as well.
Broccoli is delicious roasted or sautéed until it caramelizes. If sautéing, cut the broccoli into very small bits so it cooks evenly without burning or overcooking and getting mushy. You can cook broccoli in a large amount of liberally salted water just until it brightens up, then drain it and dress it with good oil or a sauce. You can also blanch it early in the day and dunk it into ice water to stop it cooking, then serve it cold later.
The only thing to be cautious of: Do not overcook broccoli! It destroys nutrients and releases the “stink” that Brassicas feature, a result of chemicals breaking down, releasing sulfur compounds that give off the reek. The more you cook the broccoli, the stronger the smell gets, so cook quickly and try to keep those nutrient intact. (Nutritionally, dollar for dollar broccoli packs more food value than lettuce. It has even been shown in studies to help prevent certain types of cancers!)
When choosing broccoli at the farmers market, look for deep, vibrant green coloring without any yellowing. The vegetable can be pliant, but should never be limp. Some broccoli will have a purple or almost bluish cast to the florets, especially in heirloom and organic varieties. This indicates more vitamin C and beta-carotene. Also, use your nose — if the broccoli has a strong cooked cabbage smell, it is too old. It turns out, if broccoli is stored too long, the sugars convert to lignan, which is a fiber that no amount of cooking will soften, and this smell in raw broccoli is a good indicator.
To store broccoli, keep it in a loose plastic bag that is left a little open in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Use broccoli within 3 days of purchase for optimum flavor.