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Bingeing on broccoli

The land of pears, hazelnuts, chanterelles, chinook salmon and Dungeness crab will soon welcome onions to its roster of official state foods.

A bill before the Oregon Legislature designating the onion as the state vegetable does have merit, despite appearances of mimicking Washington, where Walla Walla Sweets enjoy special status. Oregon onions are indeed the state’s largest vegetable crop, both in quantity harvested and monetary value, according to the department of agriculture’s 2019 facts and figures.

But ask Oregonians which vegetable is most widely consumed, and the answer is far and away likely to be broccoli. Unlike other proclivities in the Beaver State, this preference isn’t blazing any trails.

Nationwide, broccoli is the most popular vegetable in small states, big states, red states, blue states — swing states — from sea to shining sea, apparently. Those are the results of a survey conducted last year by New Jersey-based processor Green Giant. Residents of only 14 states, according to an article by The Daily Meal, did not pick broccoli as their favorite, naming instead carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes.

Why such strong sentiments for broccoli? Although most Americans aren’t all that familiar with foods’ seasonality, they are accustomed to a steady supply of reliably fresh broccoli for reasonable prices year-round at grocery stores. It’s true that broccoli is one of the easier crops to cultivate season in and season out, even in the home garden. And broccoli has long been lauded among the most nutritionally beneficial vegetables, high in vitamins A, C and K, plus potassium, calcium and dietary fiber.

The pandemic also may factor into perceptions of broccoli. Faced with potential food shortages last spring and spurred to stock up for lean times, many shoppers likely reconsidered the role of fresh vegetables in their meals.

Almost every cook understands that whole potatoes, onions and other root vegetables will keep for months. Heads of cabbage can augment that list. But none of them exactly suggests freshness on the palate. For that, dishes need something verdant and textural.

Broccoli naturally comes to mind, and it’s a vegetable that weathers the freezer well. I figured if my household had frozen broccoli, we had vegetables covered, regardless of grocers’ scarcity.

In more abundant times, however, I have little interest in consuming broccoli as a side dish, served crisp-tender. While overcooking broccoli certainly shortchanges a stir-fry or tempura appetizer, longer cooking times for broccoli, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables coax their bitter undertone toward sweetness as their coarse fibers soften and start to collapse.

Sound unappetizing? That’s probably because the American public over the past few decades has been conditioned by professional cooks and restaurant preparations upholding crisp-tender as the best way to eat broccoli. Before you dismiss a different method, consider cream of broccoli soup, with its mild flavor and enticing mouthfeel that manages to bypass the realm of baby food mush.

The recipe that made me a believer in cooking broccoli until it essentially falls apart goes even further: It transforms the vegetable into a substance akin to pesto. Plus, it uses the stalks, which typically constitute the lion’s share of broccoli’s weight, and therefore its cost. I realized several years ago that if I discarded broccoli stalks, I was forfeiting most of the vegetable’s value, particularly when it’s organic.

Boiling the broccoli in the pasta cooking water really infuses the noodles with the vegetable’s flavor, offset by briny anchovies, capers and cured olives. Anchovy paste is a fine substitute for the whole fish fillets. Just add it directly to the skillet, rather than to the cutting board, where the garlic, capers and olives are chopped into almost a tapenade. I also like supplementing the ingredients on the board with a few oil-packed, sun-dried tomatoes that lend sweetness and balance.

You could substitute almonds or pine nuts for the pistachios and season to taste with dried red pepper flakes instead of a whole, dried chile. Tune into a previous episode of my podcast to follow along with the recipe.

Pasta with Broccoli, Olives and Pistachios

Salt, as needed

1-1/2 pounds broccoli

2 garlic cloves, peeled

2 anchovy fillets, drained and blotted dry if oil-packed, rinsed and cleaned if salt-packed

2 tablespoons capers, preferably salt-packed, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup pitted black olives, preferably Gaeta, taggiasche or Kalamata (3 ounces)

1/3 cup shelled unsalted pistachios (1.5 ounces)

6 tablespoons very fruity, extra-virgin olive oil

1 small piece dried chili, about an inch long

1 pound pasta, preferably penne, orecchiette or rigatoni

6 rounded tablespoons grated pecorino Romano cheese

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil.

Trim the broccoli: Remove florets and peel and dice stems, keeping them separate. You should have about 5 cups total.

Chop coarsely together by hand the garlic, anchovy fillets, capers, olives and pistachios.

Heat the oil gently in a skillet large enough to hold cooked pasta. Add the chili and discard when it begins to color. Add garlic mixture to pan and cook gently in oil until it just begins to turn gold, for about 2 minutes.

When water is boiling rapidly, add broccoli stems and cook for 2 minutes. Add florets and continue cooking until they are bright-green and tender, but still slightly crisp and not mushy, for 4 to 5 minutes.

With a slotted spoon or spider strainer, lift cooked broccoli from pot right into skillet, leaving water boiling in pot. Stir broccoli and garlic mixture together, breaking up any large florets with spoon; broccoli pieces should be small enough to coat pasta. Taste broccoli mixture and add more salt if necessary (with anchovies, olives and capers, you will probably not need any), and let flavors blend for a couple of minutes over low heat.

Meanwhile, add the pasta to boiling water and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is al dente, generally for 8 to 10 minutes.

When pasta is done, lift it out of water and transfer it, rather wet, to skillet. Mix well over low heat for about 30 seconds, sprinkle with the cheese and mix again. Transfer to a warm serving dish or serve directly from skillet. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

Recipe from “Pasta the Italian Way: Sauces & Shapes,” by Oretta Zanini de Vita and Maureen B. Fant.

Cream of Broccoli Soup

2 tablespoons butter

1 large leek, white and light-green part only, chopped and rinsed

1 large shallot, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon dried thyme

6 cups chicken broth

2 broccoli crowns, chopped

1 large white or russet potato, peeled and chopped

2 bay leaves

1/3 cup cream, sour cream or Mexican or Honduran crema to finish (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a 5-quart pot over medium-low heat. Add the leek, shallot and thyme; cook, stirring often, until vegetables are wilted, very fragrant and just starting to color, for about 5 minutes. Add the broth, broccoli and potato, turn up heat and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, add the bay leaves and cook, covered, for about 30 minutes, until vegetables are mush.

Remove bay leaves and blend soup in pot with an immersion blender until smooth. (Alternatively, transfer ingredients to standing blender, blend, then return to pot.)

Add the optional cream or sour cream and season to taste with the salt and pepper. Bring just to a boil, check seasonings and serve.

Makes 8 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Go soft on broccoli and cauliflower by cooking them a little longer for a surprising difference in flavor. Here, pasta with broccoli, olives and pistachios. (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Use an immersion blender to whip up a batch of cream soup including cream of broccoli soup. (John Kessler/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT)