There are many people who love spring, and if they like to cook or eat, they might suggest famous springtime delicacies as evidence that spring isn’t just a forty-five-degree puddle of dirty rainwater. “What about asparagus?” they might ask. “Peas? Rhubarb? Fresh spring greens? Ramps? Fiddleheads?” Those are indeed all good things — even the last two which are wildly overrated and basically just differently shaped and absurdly overpriced scallions and asparagus stems, respectively.
Where the spring defenders are wrong is in asserting that these items are actually available for a reasonable chunk of spring — which I am identifying, for the record, as the months of March, April, and May. March and most of April are still, in terms of local produce, wintertime. Do not eat asparagus this week. Or peas or rhubarb. You won’t even be able to find non-supermarket-bagged spring greens. None of that is in season until, if we’re being generous, the last three days of April. With rare exceptions like the mango, the beginning of April is, in terms of availability of seasonal produce, exactly the same as the beginning of March. And the beginning of February.
One good thing you can still eat are some of the brassicas, sturdy champs which remain, if not fresh, then at least hardy and adequate through the winter and first two-thirds of spring. Cauliflower, kale, and, my favorite, broccoli, are our only friends during some of these months. People love broccoli now! It is respected and adored as a healthful and delicious vegetable. But many people are not eating the broccoli correctly, because they are eating only the florets.
Broccoli has two main edible parts, the florets — the dark green forest-y tops which are actually undeveloped flower buds — and the stalk — the pale green undercarriage like the trunk of a tree. I think people are generally aware that both of these parts are edible, but assume that the stalk is, I don’t know, not tasty? Or hard to work with? Tough and fibrous, maybe? And so the market has responded by offering bags of only the florets, theoretically saving you the trouble of trimming the unwanted stalks and throwing them out.
What those bags are actually doing is making the florets more vulnerable to going bad; removed from the stalk, they will turn limp, slimy, and unfit to eat very quickly, either due to a lack of airflow or too much moisture or simply the fact that there is nothing protecting them. Even worse, those pre-cut bags are ROBBING YOU OF THE STALK, which, if it was a separate vegetable from the florets, would be one of my all-time favorites. The stalk is so good! The texture is crisp and juicy, protected from going dry by the tough-ish outer skin. The flavor is mild and vegetal, like cabbage but without the sulfurous fartiness. It is fantastically versatile, great use in everything from roasts to raw salads to purees. The bag-sellers are crooks; never ever buy a bag of broccoli florets!
Some supermarkets have begun to sell bags of “broccoli slaw,” which is thinly sliced broccoli stalk and sometimes a slice of carrot in there for color, I guess. It can sometimes be dry — freshly sliced broccoli stalk is emphatically not — but is usually cheap and tastes good and is sort of a thumb in the eye to the broccoli floret bags, so I buy it sometimes. But really you should buy the whole head of broccoli and think about it as a two-for-one: You are getting two very different vegetables that just happen to be attached to each other.
Another good thing about the broccoli stalks is that they are very good for you. Typically, the darker a vegetable is, more healthful it is, so you might assume that the dark florets have vacuumed all the good stuff out of the pale stalks, but you would be wrong. Weirdly enough, pound for pound, the stalks have exactly the same nutritional profile as the florets. That means the stalks are high in calcium, iron, Vitamin A, potassium, and magnesium, and are even pretty high in protein for a vegetable. It probably has anti-cancer properties. The stalk is not food waste!
A typical head of broccoli has maybe six or so inches of stalk under the head of florets. To prepare the stalk, first chop off the florets as close to the buds themselves as possible; they have different cooking requirements than the stalks, so you want to isolate the stalk from the floret. On the base end of the broccoli, opposite the florets, chop off maybe an inch of the stalk — chances are, it’s dried out a bit in transit from the farm, and might even be a little bit tough. Now you’re left with a knobbly bit of stalk, probably with leaves and odds and ends sticking out from it. The leaves are edible and actually pretty tasty, but are much more tender than the stalk, so slice off the leaves and use them in some other way. (Cooked low and slow like kale, maybe? Or pesto?)
From here, some people will tell you that the outer skin of the stalk is tough and should be peeled. These people are probably French or at least French-inspired, accustomed to only the tenderest, most uniform pieces of food. This is unnecessarily finicky. I rarely peel the stalk; the toughness varies from broccoli to broccoli, but the only time you really need to peel it is if you’ve got a very tough specimen indeed and you’re planning on eating it raw. If roasting or pureeing or sauteeing? Don’t bother. If eating raw, give it a bite: if it’s rubbery and not that pleasant to eat, then you should peel it.
Stir-Fried Broccoli Stalk With Shirataki Noodles
Shopping list: Broccoli, garlic, ginger, scallions, rice wine vinegar, chili paste (like sambal oelek or sriracha), peanut oil (olive is not ideal but will work), mirin, soy sauce, brown sugar, nuts (peanuts, cashews, walnuts, or pecans will all work), shirataki noodles
Shirataki noodles are odd Japanese noodles that are made of, like, yam starch and sometimes tofu and who knows what else. They’re sold in individual bags packed in water and are typically found in the tofu aisle. The packaging usually presents them as low-carb, low-calorie healthy replacements for pasta; they are not this at all, as Serious Eats will tell you. The ones I get come in shapes inspired by pasta, like “angel hair” and “spaghetti” and “macaroni,” which is sort of bizarre. The wider, flat ones, which for me are branded as “linguine,” are the ones to get here. To prepare them, open and pour the whole bag into a strainer. Rinse with water. That’s it, they’re done now.
Put a stainless steel wok on low heat with about a tablespoon of oil to heat up. Chop maybe four cloves of garlic and three scallions, along with a thumb-sized knob of ginger if fresh (if frozen, grate with a microplane but save it for a second). Toss garlic and scallions and maybe ginger into the wok, along with a little bit of chili paste, and cook until the white part of the scallions are translucent.
Get two heads of broccoli. Slice off the broccoli florets and put them in a ziploc bag for another day. Slice off the tough end of the stalks, then slice the stalks lengthwise into halves. Now slice them widthwise into bite-sized pieces; do it on an angle (“on the bias,” a shithead chef would say) for a more restaurant-y look, if you want. Crank the heat under the wok as high as it’ll go and throw in the stalks, as well as a handful of nuts. Stir-fry for a couple minutes.
Mix up your sauce: about a tablespoon of soy, tablespoon of vinegar, half-tablespoon of mirin, couple teaspoons of brown sugar. Mix and taste: too salty? Add more mirin and sugar. Too sweet? Add more soy and vinegar. If you’ve used frozen ginger, add it to the sauce here. When it tastes good, throw it into the wok, stir around, and let it reduce for a couple minutes.
When the sauce has reduced so that you can’t really see too much liquid sloshing around in there, throw in the noodles and stir-fry them to get the sauce to coat them. Serve in bowl.
Shaved Broccoli Stalk Salad With Lemon Vinaigrette
Shopping list: Broccoli, lemon, mustard, honey, pine nuts, pecorino cheese, fresh basil, olive oil, shallots
Squeeze the juice of one lemon into a glass, and add a finely minced shallot to it. (If you have pickled onions or pickled shallots, very good work, skip the shallot and just squeeze a lemon.) Let it sit while you make the rest of this.
Put pine nuts (alternately: pecans, walnuts, pistachios, or hazelnuts) on a dry cast iron pan and toast until golden brown and fragrant. Be careful not to burn them.
Separate broccoli florets and save for another use. Getting to the stalk! This is one of the few instances where you might need to shave off the outer skin, so if your broccoli’s skin is tough, do that. Then, using a mandoline, shave into very thin strips. Be careful not to mangle your hand on the mandoline. Also shave some pecorino. Go back to the glass of lemon juice. Add in a small squirt of mustard and a small squirt of honey, and then add maybe half as much olive oil as lemon juice. Mix thoroughly. Slice the basil into chiffonade: stack leaves on top of each other, roll them up tightly like you’re rolling a sleeping bag, and slice width-wise as thinly as you can into ribbons.
Arrange the shaved broccoli stalk nicely on a plate. Scatter some nuts on top, then some cheese. Pour the dressing all over and around the salad, and top with the basil, along with salt and black pepper.
Roasted Stalks With Avocado And Lime
Shopping list: Broccoli, olive oil, garlic, yellow onion, avocado, limes, cotija or feta cheese, fresh cilantro, cumin
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Separate florets from stalk and discard the tough lower end of the stalk, then slice the stalk into discs, about a third of an inch thick. Peel an onion and slice half of it into half-moons. Peel and roughly chop about five cloves of garlic. Toss broccoli, garlic, and onion in a big bowl with maybe an eighth of a cup of olive oil and a few pinches of cumin. Spread evenly on a baking sheet and roast for about twenty minutes, until lightly caramelized on the bottom and tender, but not burnt. Take out of the oven and add salt.
Top with chopped avocado and crumbled cotija or feta. Squeeze lime all over and around, and top with some cilantro leaves.
We may not be able to eat the tender young shoots of the warming season to come quite yet; it’ll be another few weeks before the farmers markets have actual farmed spring crops. But the neglected, sometimes outright ignored broccoli stalk can actually soothe your hunger for crisp, juicy, mildly sweet vegetables. It is, I swear, at least as good as the florets, and maybe even more versatile. Eat the stalks!
Photo by Liz West