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IN SEASON

Aspiration: Asparation

March 18, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, you hope the same is true for asparation.

It's a new hybrid vegetable still in its first year of commercial production that tastes like a mild, sweet broccoli; looks a little like tiny broccoli florets growing on long, thin stems (which don't need to be peeled to be edible); and is called asparation because some people say it tastes something like a cross between asparagus and broccoli.

All of which makes it a real winner of a vegetable stuck with a pretty lame name. Asparation? It sounds like broccoli that wants to be something else. At least it escaped its first proposed name: asparbroc.

In reality, asparation isn't that close to asparagus in taste, though with its long, edible stems it could be said that there's a slight physical resemblance. And there is a move afoot to change the name of asparation to broccolini, which seems to reflect its nature better. We've also seen it sold as baby broccoli.

Whatever you choose to call it, it was developed three years ago by Sakata Seeds, a Japanese company with an American arm based in Northern California. It is a cross between broccoli and gai lan, sometimes called Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale.

Indeed, it could more accurately be called baby Chinese broccoli. It also shares some flavor characteristics of rapini or Italian broccoli.

Raw, the vegetable has a tender crunch and a sweet broccoli taste with only a little of the Chinese vegetable's usual mustard-like character. Cooked--either steamed or blanched briefly--the flavor becomes even milder and sweeter.

"I've only tasted it cooked; Japanese don't eat raw broccoli," says Hideto Kaneka, marketing manager for Sakata Seed America. "Even in the research stage we only tasted it after it was boiled."

It is good tossed in salads and--briefly sauteed in olive oil with garlic and red pepper flakes--in pastas or as a side dish.

After two years of seed trials, it is licensed to be grown in this country by Mann Packing in Salinas and Sanbon LLC in El Centro. It is not yet widely available. Mann, the largest grower of broccoli in the country, hasn't even started shipping its yet; the company is expected to roll it out this fall.

You can find it--broccolini, asparation, whatever--at some Gelson's, Bristol Farms, Safeway and Lucky markets. It's also beginning to show up as baby broccoli at some area farmers markets, though with longer, less-trimmed stems than the bunches we've seen in supermarkets. Be sure to taste this before you buy it; the ones we've sampled have ranged from tough and bitter to tender and sweet.

Asparation is more difficult to farm than broccoli; it takes a lot of hand care. Early in the growing season, the central bloom of every plant has to be pinched off to allow the leggy side shoots to grow. It also takes repeated pickings, unlike broccoli. Because of that, asparation will probably never become a staple vegetable. It will probably always be sold at a premium.

In fact, Mann is trying to go the radicchio route in introducing the vegetable. Its marketers have already begun to work with some chefs and with the Culinary Institute of America. This summer they'll start supplying some restaurant accounts. In October or November, they'll roll it out for retail.

"Radicchio started at white-tablecloth restaurants and now it's available all over America," says Mann's Laurie Coster. Things have been going well, she says. "The response has been so fantastic our biggest challenge now is keeping people patient."

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