Broccoli is among the most nutritious of all vegetables, so we thought we'd give it some of the attention it deserves, especially since California grows 90% of the broccoli in the United States.
We have the Italians to thank for many wonderful foods, and for broccoli, as well. It is one of a group of cruciferous vegetables that are nutritious and contain some important phytochemicals, which are thought to help reduce the risk of cancer. Of all the cruciferous vegetables--which include cabbage, kale, cauliflower and others--broccoli is clearly the superstar.
The most powerful of the phytochemicals in cruciferous vegetables is sulforaphane. Broccoli contains some other substances that break down into sulforaphane when the broccoli is cut, chopped or chewed. The bacteria in your intestines also act on broccoli to produce sulforaphane. This is such a potentially important compound that it is even being isolated and looked at as a possible treatment for cancer (but that's a long way in the future).
A cup of broccoli contains only 43 calories, unless you sabotage it with a cheese sauce or put it in a high-fat dish of some sort. It is very high in vitamin C (you'll get more in one cup of chopped broccoli than in an orange), fiber, folic acid, beta carotene, potassium and vitamin K.
All of these substances are important nutrients we need plenty of every day. (Note: People taking blood-thinning drugs should avoid foods high in vitamin K).
Broccoli is not a particularly fragile vegetable and will stay fresh for up to four days in a crisper. The best way to store it is in an open plastic bag, which will give the right balance of humidity and air, and help to preserve the vitamin C content.
Don't wash the broccoli before storing it, since any water on its surface will encourage the growth of mold. Like most vegetables, it is at its best when used within a day or two of purchase.
Broccoli is extremely easy to prepare. Some of the good plant chemicals are lost in water, so it's best to steam or microwave it in as little water as possible. You can always use the water in a soup stock or another recipe. Raw broccoli is slightly more nutritious; if very young and fresh, it can be added to salads or as a crudite.
Many people use just the florets and discard the leaves and stems, but these are also very nutritious. If you cook the stems and florets together, start the stems a minute or two earlier. You don't need to peel them unless they seem particularly tough.
Some people don't like broccoli because of a genetic trait that makes all such vegetables taste bitter. There's probably nothing to be done for those poor souls. Others may have come to dislike broccoli because, in the old days, vegetables were routinely overcooked and the chemicals in the broccoli (and other related vegetables) broke down into strong-smelling sulfur compounds (not unlike rotten eggs). The longer the broccoli was cooked, the worse these odors became. Sooner or later, the broccoli turned brown and not only smelled bad but looked awful. Those memories can be hard to shake.
It's not easy to disguise the flavor of broccoli if you really don't like it, but you can enhance the taste by adding almost any herb, olive or walnut oil, a little butter or margarine, garlic, tomato sauce or a tiny amount of sharp cheese. Flavored vinegars are also especially good for dressing broccoli.
There are some new ways to get all the advantages of broccoli with a little variety in flavor and form. Broccolini, for example, is a sort of cross between broccoli and Chinese kale. It has a long slender stalk with small buds and tastes a bit like asparagus. You can steam or stir-fry it, and it's great cold in salads.
Broccoli rabe (rapini) also comes in a bunch with thin stems, many leaves and tiny flowers. It's a little bitter and can be used as you would any green.
Broccoflower is a strange-looking vegetable that is really a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. It comes in a solid head, as does cauliflower, but is a light green color. You can prepare it as you would cauliflower or use it for an interesting dipping vegetable.
Broccoli sprouts are really dynamite. They have about 50 times more of the substances that eventually end up as sulforaphane as does mature broccoli, but of course you eat much smaller servings of these. They can be used on sandwiches and in salads to add crunch and flavor.
Dr. Sheldon Margen is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. Send questions to Dale Ogar, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360, or e-mail to email@example.com. Eating Smart appears the second and fourth Mondays of the month.