For years I've been cooking my broccoli until it's bright green and 'tender-crisp', finishing it with a squirt of lemon and maybe a little ground black pepper. Here's a recipe that takes things in the opposite direction by braising the broccoli with olive oil and garlic on a slow, mellow flame until it is sweet and meltingly tender. A final flourish of crunchy lemon-spiked breadcrumbs adds texture and a bright flavor boost.
There was a time when I thought that i would never again eat the soft, army green-colored broccoli of my childhood. But one winter's evening I had dinner at a sweet homey little bistro in San Francisco where the menu was small and hyper-seasonal. They were serving long-cooked broccoli as their vegetable offering that night. "You have to try it," urged the waiter, who turned out to also be the owner. "I promise you will love it or the meal is on me." Well, who could refuse?
Unfortunately for my pocketbook, the broccoli was indeed amazing. While it looked like the limp drab offerings of my childhood, the olive oil and garlic raised it to a meltingly luscious level. I ate my entire serving and gladly paid my bill at the end of the evening.
I still love my broccoli cooked tender-crisp, but on occasion, especially when the days grow short and I want something warm and comforting, I put a pot of broccoli and garlic on the back of the stove to slowly braise. And if I'm feeling ambitious, I also whip up a topping of lemon-spiked breadcrumbs for a little brightness and crunch.
Slow-Cooked Broccoli with Crunchy Lemon Breadcrumbs
serves 4 to 6 as a side dish
1 1/2 pounds broccoli
3 to 4 cloves fresh garlic, peeled
1/3 cup olive oil
Red pepper flakes (optional)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cups fresh, roughly textured breadcrumbs (made from stale bread)
Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon)
Freshly ground black pepper
Break down your broccoli as follows: Cut the thick stems from the florets, peel and cut them into 1-inch chunks. Break the florets into pieces. If the garlic cloves are small (the size of an almond) leave them whole. Cut larger cloves into halves or quarters.
Pour the olive oil into a large pot (4 quarts or so) that has a tight-fitting lid. Add the broccoli, starting with the stems and followed by the florets, and garlic and a pinch of salt. Add about 2 or 3 tablespoons of water and put on the lid. Place over a medium low flame and cook until you can hear the liquids starting to simmer (about 10 minutes.) It's OK to peek in the pot to see how things are going. Turn the flame down as low as possible and continue cooking until the broccoli is limp and completely soft, about another hour. Turn off the heat but keep the lid on.
In a large frying pan, heat up the oil and butter and add the breadcrumbs (and optional red pepper flakes) and sauté until the crumbs begin to brown. Add a small pinch of the salt and turn off the heat. Using a microplane or a fine grater, carefully grate just the peel from the lemon and toss in with the crumbs.
To serve: Remove the broccoli from the pan with a tongs until the only thing left in the pot are the cooking liquid and the garlic cloves (which will be quite soft.) Smash the cloves against the sides of the pot and mix them into the liquid and pour it over the broccoli. Sprinkle on the breadcrumbs, grind some fresh pepper over everything and serve.
• This is also really good tossed with pasta and served as a main course. Just toss the pasta, the broccoli and juices together and sprinkle on the breadcrumbs. You may want to add some grated parmesan cheese as well.
• You can make this dish vegan by eliminating the butter in the breadcrumbs.
• Adding chopped almonds to the breadcrumbs is a nice touch, too.
Related: Five Ways to Eat: Broccoli
(Images: Dana Velden)