Deconstructing Broccoli

Story and Photography By Carol Ann Sayle

Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due Supper Club teaches a class on deconstructing a pig—encouraging folks to use every part of the animal, wasting nothing. It’s good knowledge to have, especially in a time of lingering uncertainty and anxiety about our food supply and the economy. In the same spirit of thrift, I suggest we apply Griffiths’s deconstructionist ethos to even more things. How about something a little more common to the average kitchen, like broccoli?

Commercial broccoli is a rather straightforward specimen, if a bit dull. It’s presented as a handheld head of tightly closed flower buds with a naked stalk, or a stub with the bud creatively called a “broccoli crown.” Because it’s presumed that you won’t eat much stalk, if any, and certainly not the leaves, these accoutrements, considered nonessential, are trimmed away for show. The truth, though, is that broccoli is a magnificent, large, generous plant that takes two to three months to mature (that’s a lot of time and effort for just one culinary moment). And broccoli offers far more than just its buds—but first we need to get out of the cold case and into the garden.

To get the most from broccoli grown here on the farm, we first harvest the hotly desired head by cutting the stalk right above the second set of larger leaves.

The harvested head will include the plant’s first good-size medium leaves (approximately eight inches long, including stem), plus the smaller leaves above. Both sets of leaves and their stems are edible and extremely good for you as part of the plant’s “nutrition highway.” In fact, the stems and leaves are delicious and even better for you than the famous head, but arriving at this knowledge involved a lesson in adaptability.

Years ago, with a lot of crop space devoted to broccoli, cauliflower and their sister, Brussels sprouts, we learned to eat the Brussels greens—a tasty substitute for collards. This was important to us, as for some reason, collards were always the last of the brassica crops we planted. While farm-stand visitors hollered incessantly for collards, I earnestly hooked them on substituting Brussels leaves. Most liked them just as well, even though the leaves look like ping pong paddles. And since broccoli is kin to Brussels, we figured those leaves would be good, too—and they were. These were very enlightening moments for us, as it meant we could make the most of these stalwarts of the cool season.

Soon after the broccoli heads are harvested, tender side shoots will appear as the plant is still growing and making a final attempt at blooms and seeds. The plant hopes that we gardeners won't notice these little buds, but they are a delicacy to be spotted and relished. While plucking them, we take the surrounding leaves too, as the buds, little leaves and stems are great when eaten raw or used for a robust salad or quick sauté. This is also a good time to harvest the beautiful larger leaves to be used chopped-up in stir-frys and soups.

Inevitably, some of the bottom leaves of the plant will have developed defects over time, making them unsuitable for discerning eaters. Every other day, I harvest a couple of wheelbarrow loads of these raggedy, tougher stepsisters and either place them in footpaths to break down as sheet compost or deliver them to the eager chickens in the henhouse. The rest of the broccoli plant, now devoid of bounty, is lopped off at ground level and taken to the compost pile, leaving the roots (with their nutrients and minerals rich and carbon-sheathed) in place to decompose.

A beautiful consequence of having too much broccoli in the garden is allowing some heads to bolt for the bees. Alternatively, the blooming head makes a nice table centerpiece. Over the course of one growing season, broccoli has successfully fed us, our chickens, the bees and our soil, as well as beautified our table. How thrifty!