Broccoli belongs to a class of vegetables in the mustard family called brassicas which are cultivated varieties of wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea). Also known as cruciferous vegetables because of their cross-shaped leaves, other brassicas include kale, collards, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. These crops are also called cole crops and include some root brassicas like radishes, turnips and rutabagas.
Native to the eastern Mediterranean and popular with the Romans in the 1500s, the marriage of Catherine de Medici (a daughter of the powerful Florentine banking family) to Henry II of France introduced broccoli to Europe in the 1700s where it was known as ‘Italian asparagus.’
Fun Fact: In the United Kingdom broccoli is referred to as ‘calabrese.’ The term ‘broccoli’ in the U.K. is often applied to a winter-hardy cauliflower that is planted in the field in the late summer and matures to the normal white curd the next spring.
Broccoli: The more popular varieties of broccoli grown in Canada are Paragon and Cruiser. We eat the green flowering head of the broccoli plant which must be harvested before the buds blossom into little yellow flowers. This is called bolting. The heads are around 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) in diameter and resemble small trees, as they grow on trunk-like, edible stalks that range in colour from vibrant green to pale almost blue.
Broccolini or Chinese broccoli: Developed in Japan in 1993, broccolini is a hybrid of broccoli and Chinese kale. This plant is the result of traditional plant breeding techniques and has a longer more tender and flavourful stem. It is primarily grown in Mexico, California and Arizona.
- Romanesco broccoli – looks like a cross between broccoli and cauliflower with tightly packed, cone-shaped florets in a bright green colour.
- Purple broccoli – has dark purple florets and long tender green stems. If produced in warm weather it will taste bitter so it is best suited for cooler climates or a winter growing season. It turns green when cooked.
How to Buy
Look for firm green stalks with grey-green leaves and compact green bud clusters. Avoid yellow florets or any that look wet or soft.
Broccoli can be purchased in bunches with the stalk on, or individual crowns with most of the stem removed. If buying bunches with the stalk on, look for long slender stalks as they will be more tender and less bitter than thick ones.
Frozen broccoli florets can be found in the freezer section and added from frozen to soups and casseroles, like this Cheesy Broccoli, Ground Beef and Rice.
How to Store
Store unwashed broccoli in an open ended plastic bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for up to five days. It needs air circulation to stay fresh. If needed you can poke holes in the bag to prevent humidity build-up. Excess moisture can cause mold growth. Make sure you rinse your broccoli right before cooking.
Blanched broccoli can be stored in the freezer for up to a year. To blanch, cut broccoli head into small pieces and place in boiling water for three minutes. Strain in a colander and then transfer the florets to an ice bath and let soak for three minutes to stop the cooking process. Drain and pat dry with paper towel. Then spread out in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in the freezer for 4 hours before transferring to a freezer bag.
How to Prepare
Wash, drain and remove outer leaves; cut and trim the stems. Cook just to the point of becoming tender to retain its bright green colour.
Raw broccoli has its place in veggie trays but also works well in salads, like this summery Broccoli and Grape Salad.
Steaming – Chop your broccoli head into segments or florets and steam in a double boiler on the stove for 5 to 7 minutes. Check to make sure you aren’t overcooking.
Blanching – For perfectly firm broccoli without the bitterness of raw broccoli, drop your broccoli florets into boiling water for 3 minutes then strain and remove to a cold water bath for 3 minutes to stop the cooking process. Add blanched broccoli to salads or frittatas.
Stir-frying – When stir-frying, broccoli cooks a little more quickly than harder vegetables like carrots or celery, so add it to your pan towards the end. Check for tenderness as you cook. See this great article from our contributor Claire Tansey on How to Make a Stir-Fry.
Microwaving – Place in a microwave-safe baking dish with 1/2 cup (125 mL) of water; arrange with florets toward centre of dish. Cover with plastic wrap and cook on high for 8 to 10 minutes (turning the broccoli at half time) or until stem ends are tender. Let stand covered 2 to 3 minutes before serving with your favourite cheese sauce.
Sautéing – Broccoli can be sautéed with canola oil and herbs or seasoning as a delicious side dish.
Roasting – Dress broccoli florets with canola oil, salt and pepper and roast on a cookie sheet in a 400 F oven for 20 minutes, turning halfway through the cooking time.
Broccoli can also be cut up small and incorporated into a vegetable pasta sauce, or even as the base of a flavourful purée or soufflé.
Like other dark green vegetables, broccoli is a source of antioxidants that can have preventative properties. It is also an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, and folacin and is rich in calcium. Broccoli is an excellent source of fibre.
How Broccoli is Grown
Broccoli is a cool weather crop that does not like hot summers and therefore is well suited to Canada’s more temperate climate. Canadian broccoli production is concentrated in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia with some minor production on the Prairies and in the Maritime provinces.
Broccoli varieties are categorized as early season or late season. A late-season variety can be planted from seed directly into the fields in April and is usually ready to harvest 55 to 75 days later, depending on the variety.
Early-season varieties are started in greenhouses and transplanted into fields when the snow has gone and risk of frost is low, usually around late April. Broccoli plants that are started in a greenhouse need to go through a process called ‘hardening off’ where they bring the greenhouse temperature down gradually to match outdoor temperatures. This gives the young plants a chance to adapt to the cooler climate without stressing them and ensures their survival once moved outdoors.
April plantings of broccoli will have marketable heads ready to harvest by mid-June. Once the primary head is removed from the broccoli plant, other minor shoots will grow larger and be ready for harvest later on. This way a farmer can harvest 2 to 3 broccoli heads from one plant in a season.
Farmers also stagger their vegetable plantings so as to have a continual supply of harvest-ready produce throughout the summer season.
Canadian broccoli is harvested by hand by a team of skilled workers that cut the stem at the base of the head above the large cabbage like leaves. They are on the lookout for head defects that consumers do not like, like overmaturity when the flowers start to open, hollow stems, green leaves poking through the budded tops and surface rot. Unfit plants are left in the field to be used as compost or harvested and fed to livestock.
The most important stage of broccoli production is right after the plant is picked. ‘Field heat’ is residual heat left in the plant from the sun and warm weather that can cause the broccoli to wilt quickly. Farmers must have access to cold storage warehouses and refrigerated transportation to remove the field heat and keep from losing their crop before it gets to the customer. The broccoli heads are collected in bulk bins in the field and then moved to a packing warehouse where they are rapidly cooled with iced water, an ice slurry or a hydro-cooling system before being processed and moved into forced-air cooling or standard cold storage spaces.
Traditionally, broccoli heads are collected into small groups of two or three and tied together with elastic bands, although wire ties or plastic rings are also used. This process is often integrated with trimming the overall length of the bunch to about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm).
The broccoli bunches are then packed with ice for shipping while some product is washed and cut into ready-to-use bags for consumers. The rest is frozen and packaged. Most of Canada’s broccoli is sold as fresh produce.
Canadian Field Crop is Available: June – October
Grown in: Quebec (50%), Ontario (40%), British Columbia (10%)