Sweet broccoli matures during cool weather

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Broccoli that matures during cool weather produces the sweetest tasting heads.

Love it or hate it, broccoli still holds its own in the vegetable kingdom, ranking as the world's fifth most popular vegetable. President Barack Obama certainly would agree, and at a state dinner at the White House he once stated that broccoli was his favourite vegetable!

Many would disagree however, and one famous person who would definitely disagree is America's 43rd President, George Bush. He hated broccoli so much that he banned it from being served on Air Force One, and was quoted saying, "I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. I'm President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli!” No matter your taste, broccoli remains one of the world's most nutritious vegetables, and certainly one of the most exotic looking, with its dark green, crisp and sturdy florets.

Interestingly, both broccoli and cauliflower are derivatives of cabbage, selected for their edible, immature flower heads, and the wild broccoli plant is somewhat similar in appearance to a leafy canola plant. This native of the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor has been cultivated in the Mediterranean for about 2000 years. It was engineered from a cabbage relative by the Etruscans - an ancient Italian civilization which lived in what is now Tuscany, and who were considered to be horticultural geniuses. Broccoli became an extremely popular vegetable in Italy in the days of the Roman Empire, and was spread by them to all the countries they conquered. Its first mention in France was in 1560, but it took a long time for broccoli to find its way into England, and in 1724 it was still virtually unknown there. In the 1724 edition of Philip Miller's Gardener's Dictionary it was referred to as "a stranger in England" and described as a "sprout colli-flower" or "Italian asparagus."

Broccoli spread to the American colonies in colonial times, and it is recorded that Thomas Jefferson, who was an avid gardener, experimented with cultivating broccoli seeds brought over from Italy in the late 1700’s, it did not however, become a popular foodstuff in the United States until Southern Italian immigrants brought it over in the early 1920's.

The large head and thick stalked broccoli we are most familiar with, and which is available in stores year-round, labelled simply “broccoli” is usually "Calabrese broccoli," named after the city Calabria in southern Italy. There is another variety that features several thin stalks and heads called "sprouting broccoli," and there is even a purple sprouting variety. If you can find seed or seedlings of "Broccolini" grab them – it’s a new vegetable that looks just like regular broccoli except that the flower buds are smaller and the stalks are thinner, but most delicate and delicious! You may also come across "Romanesco broccoli" which is tightly packed in a cone shape and is a lovely pale yellow-green in colour.
The various varieties of broccoli produce different coloured heads, ranging from green to purple, but all turn dark green when cooked. No matter which variety you get, broccoli is rich in calcium and the sulphur it contains has beneficial antiviral and antibiotic properties. Its wonderful anti-oxidant properties will certainly keep you in top form, and also help prevent cancer, so eat your greens!

In South Africa, broccoli is essentially treated as a fast growing cool season crop which requires cool, moist conditions to develop good heads. However, hybrid seed is available that will extend the growing season into summer, so choose your varieties carefully, and if in doubt, consult with your local garden centre - they will know which varieties to sow in your region. An added bonus of growing your own broccoli is, if you produce more than you can eat fresh, broccoli can be frozen and used during the summer months when it’s perhaps too hot in your region to grow successfully.

Health Benefits:

Broccoli is extremely nutritious but low in calories and virtually fat free. It is high in calcium and one ounce of broccoli has an equal amount of calcium as one ounce of milk. It’s one of the richest sources of vitamin C and A, and also contains vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, and vitamin K. Besides all this, broccoli is a good source of iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, lutein, folic acid, and dietary fibre.

Because broccoli is rich in beta-carotene and contains at least 30 types of cancer fighting agents, it is helpful to reduce the risk of breast cancer, and is linked to lowering lung cancer and cancer of the colon. Recent research has shown that it can block the development of melanoma skin cancer cells.

Broccoli is also thought to be important in the prevention of diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and high blood pressure.

In the Kitchen:

Broccoli is a bona-fide dinnertime hero, you can sauté it, roast it, or simply shave it and eat it raw. To reap the best health benefits from your broccoli, eat it raw, or lightly steamed, so try to buy the best quality you can afford, or grow your own, and always wash thoroughly before using. Try it in a salad combined with quinoa and some of your other favourite salad ingredients, topped with a creamy buttermilk salad dressing.

Classic broccoli recipes include; baking it in the oven in a dreamy cheese sauce, or using it for a broccoli and cheese quiche. Broccoli and cheddar cheese soup is also sure to be a hit with your family, and even the tender young leaves rival true spinach for taste, and are delicious in stir fries.

"Broccoli Ripassati" is a twice-cooked broccoli recipe direct from Rome, and in this Italian staple, broccoli is first blanched, then fried in olive oil to create a creamy, sweet sauce, which is used as an accompaniment to almost anything. Although Italians usually serve broccoli ripassati as a side dish with meat, and especially sausages, its soft creaminess makes it perfectly delicious to eat all on its own over some pasta, or maybe accompanied by a spoonful of ricotta, some anchovy breadcrumbs, or a handful of olives and capers. Even just pilling it onto garlic‑rubbed toast, topped with a fried egg is simply divine!

Everyone knows the classic yet dead simple "French Potato Gratin" in which wafer-thin slices of potato, a few seasonings, and most importantly lots of cream, topped off with a light sprinkling of cheese and breadcrumbs, are baked together to make this simple yet satisfying side dish. Broccoli can also be done in this way, in fact any vegetable can be used, as long as it is robust enough to be baked, so root vegetables like potatoes are obviously one of the best, but broccoli also does a really good job.
Broccoli Indian style includes stir fries and wonderful curries with are served with rice or roti bread; or perhaps in "Indian Spiced Chicken & Broccoli Fried Rice." They also use it in many fantastic vegetarian dishes like: "Indian Spicy Potatoes and Broccoli," "Paneer Broccoli Fritters," or "Warm, Spiced Broccoli and Carrot Salad."

More unusual yet delicious ways of preparing broccoli is to roast it in the oven, drizzled with a little olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. It can be served plain or perhaps with an arugula salad, or slathered with a spicy yogurt sauce, as the Indians love to eat it. Pork chops or roasted pork shoulder with pineapple and sesame is another wonderful variant, as is sautéed broccoli, tomatoes, and bacon - be adventurous when cooking with broccoli, there are thousands of recipes online.

Companion Planting in the Garden:

Petunias make excellent companion plants for broccoli because they act as a tonic plant, so if you do not get heavy frosts in winter try planting some nearby, petunias are so bright and cheerful! Broccoli also grows well with celery, chamomile, dill and rosemary.

Cultivation and Harvesting:

Broccoli that matures during cool weather produces healthy heads that are sweeter tasting than those you pick at any other time, and for this reason, in our hot climate broccoli is planted out in late summer or autumn. Although newer hybrids allow it to be sown at other times, spring conditions may be unpredictable, and long, cool springs, for example, cause young transplants to form small, early heads. On the other hand, if temperatures heat up very quickly in spring or early summer, the heat-stressed broccoli will bolt and open its flower buds prematurely. High temperatures can also cause bitter, loose heads to form, leaving you with smaller and less tasty florets.

So, we now know that broccoli loves the cold, in fact, the colder it gets the more your broccoli will thrive, tolerating freezing temperatures with ease. Broccoli can be grown throughout South Africa, but in regions which experience several hard freezes, followed by thaws, protection is often provided with floating row covers, which provide an additional four to eight degrees worth of warmth, and extending the season by up to four weeks. Atina Diffley, co-owner of Gardens of Eagan Organic Farm in Minnesota states that she's had broccoli freeze solid, and when it thawed out it was fine, just don't let the heads freeze and thaw repeatedly.

For smaller vegetable gardens it is often more convenient to purchase trays of broccoli seedling to plant out, but sowing from seed is still the most economical. If you plan to sow seeds directly in the garden, or into seedling trays, make sure you do so about 85 to 100 days before the average first frost in your region. This will ensure that the seedlings are well established before they are planted out and have grown vigorously before winter seriously sets in. Seedlings sown into seedling trays will need to be transplanted into bigger containers as soon as the first true leaves appear. Transplant them into the garden when they are about 15cm tall, spacing them 40cm apart and leaving about 60cm between the rows. Be very careful not to bend the taproots when transplanting or the plants will have stunted growth.

Broccoli grows best in full sun and where the soil is slightly acidic, with pH between 6.0 and 6.8. On very acidic soils agricultural lime can be added to raise the pH. The right pH and lots of organic matter helps to ensure that nutrients, particularly essential micronutrients like boron, are readily available. Because broccoli needs to grow quickly it requires a well-prepared bed with deeply dug soil and lots of added compost or well-rotted manure, plus a dressing of organic 2:3:2.

Keep the soil moist at all times, but not saturated. Hill the soil up around the stems of the plants as they grow, this is especially important on windy sites, and gently pull any weeds out by hand because broccoli roots are very shallow.  Feed with a balanced, high nitrogen fertiliser one month after planting out, and again after the main heads have been harvested to encourage side shoots.
The main head should be ready to harvest about 9 to 10 weeks after transplanting, and must be cut immediately when it reaches full bud development, and before the yellow flower buds open. Once the main head has been harvested broccoli will produce numerous side shoots that can be harvested later.

Pests & Diseases:

The advantage of growing broccoli during the winter is that there are very few pests around, but as the weather warms up in spring, mildew can become problematic. Also, watch out for the cabbage fly and its larvae, which can strip a plant of its leaves, and aphids which may also need to be controlled.