I was in my hometown – Urbana, Illinois – talking to Inga, one of my oldest and dearest friends. We were discussing gardening and cooking, as we inevitably do, when she said something simple that brought me up short. Something like: “I grow a lot of broccoli, because we eat a lot of it, and home-grown broccoli is so much better.”
Wait, what? I’d never given any thought to broccoli as something to even bother growing at home. Broccoli is broccoli, right? The brilliant green heads at the grocery store seemed fine. Uninspiring, sure, but, well… I mean, it’s just broccoli.
No, she assured me, broccoli is not just broccoli. But it was not the season, so she had no homegrown broccoli to share, and I pretty much forgot the conversation. Until I was browsing one of the eight or so tables at my tiny, beloved Nob Hill Grower’s Market on a recent Thursday and the woman next to me was buying the second-to-last head of fresh broccoli. She was enthusing to the grower about how terrific the head she’d bought the previous week had been.
“Really,” I asked, “is it that much better?”
Both women assured me that it was.
So naturally I snagged the last head. It was pretty, the little buds of the florets just a hair larger and less compactly packed than the ones I usually get at the grocery store, the color a dustier, bluer shade of green.
As I cut it up for dinner, I ate a piece of stem… and it was terrific, better than that grocery-store broccoli in a way that’s hard to describe. More vegetal, more complex, more alive. Just a tiny bit floral, even, which seems right given that it’s a big mass of flower buds.
We ate it simply steamed with a drizzle of olive oil. When I bought another head, I made Chinese broccoli beef. (So good!) Yesterday I bought a third head, and I wanted to showcase it in a simple preparation. So I surfed over to Smitten Kitchen to see what Deb had in the way of broccoli-based entrees. Not far down the recipe list was Pasta with Garlicky Broccoli Rabe, a beautifully simple recipe based on one from Gourmet magazine. Broccoli is not the same thing as broccoli rabe, but they can substitute for each other well enough. I was sold.
The method could hardly be simpler: The broccoli and pasta are cooked together, then tossed with olive oil warmed with garlic and chile flakes. Add some grated cheese and you’re done.
The dish was exactly what I was looking for. Simple, wholesome, delicious, attractive – more than the sum of its parts. It was a beautiful way to use that garden-fresh broccoli, but it would still be great with broccoli from the store. Or, what the heck, with the broccoli rabe from the original recipe.
On the Smitten Kitchen site, Deb warns against using iodized salt in this recipe; she says it can turn broccoli an unattractive color. This has never happened to me, but be warned.
You don’t have to use penne here – any chunky pasta shape that works well with the broccoli pieces will be fine. This recipe serves 2-3 and will double easily (in fact, it is halved as well as slightly modified from the recipe at Smitten Kitchen).