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Thursday, August 22

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Editor's note: This column was originally published on June 29, 2004. One Good Meal returns anew next week.

What's high in Vitamins C, K, and A, high in fiber, low in calories, brought to the U.S. by Italian immigrants, and stinks to high heaven when it grows? Broccoli.

This cabbage derivative is from the region of Italy now known as Tuscany but was probably being cultivated by the Etruscans, who were farming in the region before the Roman Empire conquered the area. Broccoli slowly made its way across Europe and into Asia. Thomas Jefferson was even intrigued by it, so he began cultivating it at Monticello. It didn't become popular until the D'Arrigo brothers of Messina, Italy, started their produce company in the 1920s. They were the first commercial growers to raise and ship the plant in wooden crates with the Andy Boy logo on the side.

The name even sounds Italian, doesn't it? But it is closely related to the Latin word "bracchium" which means strong branch or arm. The ancient Romans called broccoli "the five green fingers of Jupiter." Maybe they called it that to get their kids to eat it?

How do you pick out good broccoli? Look for compact crowns that have dark green, blue-green, or purplish-green buds that are tightly closed and dark green leaves that are strong and upright. The more intense the color, the higher the nutritional content. When broccoli begins to turn yellow it means that it is old and is losing its nutrients. Look at the cut ends for open cores which means the broccoli is older, woodier, and will probably have tough stems no matter how long you cook it.

How do you cook it? Well, there have been many studies done to determine the best way to cook broccoli so it doesn't lose its vitamin content. (A large number of these studies were begun after George Bush, Sr. publicized his dislike for the vegetable.) What was the conclusion? Steam it.

The florets can be steamed in a covered pan for 4-5 minutes. The stems take longer and the cooking time depends on its freshness as well as the age of the plant when harvested. The easiest way to tell when it is done is to wait for the color to change. When it is just tender it gets a brilliant color to it that also lets you know the nutritional levels have peaked. Overcook it to a dark green color and say goodbye to the nutrients -- and the flavor. It also starts to get stinky in a rotten egg kind of way as you overcook it.

Now that we know it's good for you, how to choose it, and the best way to cook it, what can you do with it? Steam a head of florets and sprinkle it with fresh lemon juice, drizzle some fresh olive oil and a few grinds of fresh cracked pepper, for starters. Here are a couple of other ideas:

Broccoli, Bowtie pasta, with pinenuts
1 head of fresh broccoli, cut into florets and bite-sized stems
1 pound of bowtie or similar pasta
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1/4 cup of fresh pine nuts
1 clove of garlic, minced
Black olives or sundried tomatoes as an optional topping

Set a pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Put an inch or two of water in the bottom pan of a steamer, add the broccoli to the top pot or steamer basket, put the heat at medium-high, cover and cook for about five minutes. Once the water begins to boil, drop in the pasta and add the remaining ingredients to a skillet and saute for about 3-4 minutes or until the pine nuts are toasty and the garlic has begun to mellow from the heat. Once the pasta is cooked, drain it, toss with the broccoli and the pine nuts and serve. Makes four full servings.

Braised Broccoli
1 head of broccoli
3 tablespoons of olive oil
4 garlic cloves cut in half
5 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1/8 cup of toasted bread crumbs

Trim one inch off the bottom of the broccoli stems and slice the broccoli lengthwise into pieces, with the stem being no thicker than your finger. Bring a large pot of water to boil. While it heats, place a skillet over medium-low heat and add the olive oil. Add the garlic and the anchovies and cook for five minutes, stirring every 30 seconds until they are golden brown and fragrant. Once the water boils, add the broccoli and cook for one minute. Drain it well and add it to the skillet. Cook over low heat for about 10 minutes until the broccoli is tender but not falling apart. Turn gingerly a few times. Remove the pan from the heat, add the salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top and serve. Makes four servings.

Ginger Broccoli
1 bunch of broccoli, stems and florets in bite-size pieces
a 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 scallion, sliced thinly in rings
1 red pepper, diced

Put one inch of water in the bottom of your steamer pot and set on a medium-high burner. Once the water is boiling put the bite-size pieces of stem on the bottom, add a few thin slices of ginger on top of the stems and put the florets on top. Steam for 5 minutes. Grate the rest of the ginger into a bowl and mix with the soy sauce, vinegar, and oil. Pour this over the broccoli and toss. Sprinkle the scallion and red pepper on top. Serves four.

Broccoli cooked in wine
1/4 cup of olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Florets from 1 large bunch of broccoli
1 1/2 cups of Sauvignon Blanc
Salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Once it is warm, remove the skillet from the heat. Add the garlic and stir constantly for 30 seconds. Return the skillet to the heat and add the florets. Stir until they're evenly coated with the oil. Add the wine, salt and pepper and simmer uncovered over low heat for 5 minutes. Cover and steam for 15 minutes and remove the florets to a bowl. Keep the broccoli warm while you boil the liquid in the skillet until it reduces by half. Pour this over the broccoli and serve. Serves four.

Chicken and Broccoli Stir-Fry
1 pound of chicken breasts, cut into cubes
3 scallions, whites only, sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece peeled fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thin
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
About 1/3 cup water
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 head of broccoli, stalks sliced and florets cut into large bite-sized pieces (keep the two cuts separate)
3/4 to 1 teaspoon red chili flakes, optional
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
Garnish: toasted sesame seeds, optional
Serving suggestion: Jasmine rice

In a bowl, mix the chicken, the scallion whites, half the garlic and ginger, the soy sauce, sugar, 1 teaspoon of the cornstarch, 1 teaspoon of the salt, the sherry and the sesame oil. Stir to coat evenly and marinate at room temperature for 15 minutes. Mix the remaining cornstarch with 1/3 cup of warm water.

Heat a large nonstick skillet or wok over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and heat. Add the broccoli stems, and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the florets and the remaining garlic, ginger, 2 tablespoons of water, and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper. Stir constantly until the broccoli is bright green but still crisp, about two minutes and move broccoli to to a plate.

Get the skillet good and hot again, and then heat 2 more tablespoons oil. Add the chicken and chili flakes (or you could let people add their own hot sauce.) Stir-fry until the chicken loses its raw color and starts to turn a little brown, about three minutes. Add the hoisin sauce and the broccoli to the pan and toss to heat through. Stir in the reserved cornstarch mixture and bring to a boil to thicken. Add more water if need to thin the sauce, if necessary. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if you like. Makes four main courses.

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About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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