Super Sprouts

It's interesting how a person's taste changes from childhood to adulthood, what they like and don't like. Personally, my tastes were like most kids when I was a child (you couldn't have gotten me to eat a vegetable for anything). As a teenager I thought that I was eating enough vegetables if I ate a hamburger that had a leaf of soggy iceberg lettuce on it. Ditto for the celery that came with chicken wings.

Adulthood of course brought a more discerning view of vegetables. Their healthful properties go without saying, and as a professional cook I also enjoy their versatility. But it's not just that, over the years I have grown to truly love vegetables-they're delicious-and the one that I am particularly fond of is broccoli. Apparently I am not alone in my fondness for these green stalks. The "average American" eats 900% (yes, that's 900%) more broccoli today than they did a mere two decades ago, that translates to an average consumption of 4 1/2 pounds per person annually (opposed to a measly 8 ounces a little over 20 years ago). This is, of course, is a good thing because broccoli is one of the most healthy and nutritious vegetables there is.

Everyone knows that vegetables are good for you, but broccoli is at the top of the list. It is extremely rich in vitamins, high in fiber, and low in fat and calories (3 1/2 ounces of broccoli, for example, contains only 28 calories). Most vegetables that are dark in color are loaded with vitamins, and the dark green color in broccoli translates to Vitamin A and Vitamin C. In fact, one serving of broccoli will supply you with 200% of your daily requirement of Vitamin C. What's more, the calcium level of broccoli is said to rival that of milk.

The most incredible thing about broccoli, I think, is that research has indicated that it may actually be anti-carcinogenic. Broccoli is a member of the cabbage family, and along with many other vegetables-cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, chard, kale, rutabagas, turnips, etc.-it is classified as a cruciferous vegetable. All of these vegetables are high in phytochemicals, which are natural substances found in plants (the word "phyto" is a Greek word for plant). What's important about phytochemicals is that they appear to offer the body protection against certain types of cancers, and they're also beneficial in prevention of heart disease.

What else is interesting about broccoli is that while it may have been in existence for a really long time-supposedly since pre-Christian times-it is a relative newcomer to America. When it was first introduced in England, and later America, it was sometimes called "little asparagus" because of its shoot-like appearance. Some say that the first broccoli that was grown in our country was in the backyards of Italian Immigrants that migrated here in the early 1920's (the word broccoli is derived from the Italian "brocco," loosely meaning arm, branch, or sprout). Whatever the case, because of its versatility and flavor it didn't take long for the vegetable to go mainstream, and shortly thereafter it began to be produced commercially. Today America is one of the largest producers of broccoli in the world, and while it is grown in many states throughout our vast country 90% percent of the green stuff is grown in California, much of which is exported to everywhere from Canada to the Far East.

Because of its year-round prevalence at supermarkets it may seem that broccoli doesn't have an actual growing season, but it does. Broccoli's peak season is through the winter months, specifically October to March. Purchasing any vegetable in its proper season will yield a better product, and usually lower cost. It also promotes seasonality and regional cooking.

When purchasing broccoli look for heads that have tight and compact bud clusters that are dark green, sometimes with a hint of purple. The stem portion should be lighter green. Avoid any that are yellowed or have open, dry-looking clusters. This denotes age or improper storage. Store the broccoli unwashed in a plastic bag in your refrigerator. Wash it just before preparing. While the entire head and stem is edible, the bottom inch of the stem is often discarded because of its fibrous texture. Peel the remaining portion of the stem for a more delicate quality.