Americans are pretty picky about what their broccoli looks like, Cornell University horticulturist Thomas Bjorkman reports. He’s the lead researcher for the Eastern Broccoli Project, a scientific and agricultural effort looking for ways to grow broccoli year round east of the Mississippi River, to reduce our region’s dependency on broccoli from California.

Ninety percent of the broccoli eaten on the East Coast is trucked in from California, where warm days and cool nighttime temperatures and humidity levels cater to existing breeds’ temperature comfort zone, around 62 degrees. The steady nighttime temperatures result in tight bunches of small, dark green beads (technically flower buds) that pull together in mature and attractive domed crowns. Hot and humid summer nights in the East cause the buds to bolt prematurely to yellow-green flowers that don’t pass muster in the finicky retail broccoli market. But they are still very much edible.

In the lab, Bjorkman’s team of germplasm scientists are using conventional crossbreeding techniques to produce cultivars that won’t bolt until nighttime temperatures consistently top 70 degrees. In the field, cooperative extension specialists are conducting trials of these new seeds. It’s not that Eastern farmers can’t grow broccoli – Maine has a long tradition of both spring and fall crops. The new crosses could shorten the time between the two harvests by extending the spring crop into summer and letting farmers plant their fall crop earlier.

Ingredients for Broccoli Greens with Smoky Bacon. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

But the new seeds won’t be available commercially until the summer of 2019. So what can we eaters do now to help cut the carbon footprint of this particular brassica? Well, buy local broccoli even if it is not as uniformly picture perfect as you’re used to seeing in the grocery store, for starters. In spite of its irregular looks, it will be fresher and taste better than the average California broccoli crown that took 7 to 10 days to make it from the farm to your fork.

And while you’re waiting for more local broccoli crowns to become more available thanks to the Eastern Broccoli Project, ask a farmer or a neighbor who already grows the stuff for a bunch of the plant’s fleshy leaves. They typically get composted alongside the woody stalks. What a waste! They are just as edible as kale or collard greens, and they are very nutritious. A 4-ounce serving has 100, 60, and 30 percent, respectively, of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamins C and A, and calcium, plus 5 grams of protein.

In spite of the best marketing efforts of Foxy Organics, a West Coast company that sells bunched whole leaves and bags of chopped ones as “BroccoLeaf,” the idea of eating broccoli greens has not (yet) taken the nation by storm. But the idea is a good one, especially if you factor in the sustainable eating practice of root to leaf cookery.

Raw broccoli leaves taste subtly of their raw flower buds, but they can be pretty tough. So if you want to eat them raw, it’s best to whizz them into smoothies or shred them into slaws. I was able to source my bunch by issuing a general social media request, which eventually landed me in a North Yarmouth master gardener’s sizable patch. She’d already harvested the crowns, and I was more than welcome to the spoils. To clean the leaves, I soaked them in a gallon of cold water mixed with 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar and 1 tablespoon salt for about two hours. This is a combination used typically to coax the worms out of broccoli heads, and it also works wonders to loosen any worm larvae clinging to the leaves. Once rinsed and wrapped in a clean towel, the leaves will keep in the crisper for up to a week.

Stemmed, chopped and cooked broccoli leaves have the same texture as any other hearty cold weather greens, and they soak up the flavor of whatever else is in the simmering pot. Also, broccoli leaves make great baked “chips.” Any kale chip recipe will suit these leaves just fine.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

 

Broccoli Greens with Smoky Bacon. Treating broccoli leaves like collard greens or kale leads to delicious results. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

BROCCOLI GREENS WITH SMOKY BACON

Georgia-born chef and cookbook writer Virginia Willis trained in France, came of age working for Martha Stewart in New York, and is now an outspoken proponent of fresher, healthier Southern food. She makes this recipe (published in her “Basic to Brilliant, Y’All” cookbook) with mustard greens and smoked turkey neck. But I only had broccoli greens and dry-cured, deeply smoked local bacon. When I asked her what she thought of my substitutions, she didn’t hesitate to give me her generous Southern blessing. In her book, she suggested serving the greens with crisp, homemade garlicky croutons for contrasting texture.

Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 ounces smoky slab bacon, cut into ½-inch cubes

1 sweet onion, such as Vidalia, quartered

4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

1 pound broccoli leaves, tough stems removed and chopped

2 cups fruity white wine, such as Riesling or Gewürztraminer

4 cups chicken stock

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the bacon and cook until the fat is rendered and the pieces start to crisp. Add the onion and cook, turning until all sides are golden, 8-10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add the greens, stir to coat in fat, and cook until slightly wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the wine, bring to a boil and cook until the liquid is reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the stock and season the mixture lightly with salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the greens are very tender, about 1 hour. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into serving bowls with plenty of the flavored broth.