26 April 2014

Purple sprouting broccoli

Purple sprouting broccoli

Brassicas seem to adore the heavy clay soil in my veg patch. And when I say adore, we're talking monster, shoulder-height plants. I grow a range of brassicas - cavolo nero, brussels sprouts, curly kale - but my favourite is purple sprouting broccoli. I prefer an early variety that starts to produce florets (which are immature flower buds) towards the end of February, and which can usually be picked through to the end of April. As the season goes by, the florets get more spindly, as the plant tries harder and harder to flower. As well, as tasting great and being reasonably versatile in the kitchen, purple sprouting broccoli provides an abundant harvest at a time of the year when precious little else can be picked from the veg patch.

The seed can be sown in seed trays in about mid May, and potted on to small pots when large enough to handle. I plant it out in mid July, in the bed from which I've just harvested my garlic and shallots. From planting out until autumn it should be covered in a fine-grade mesh - cabbage white butterfly caterpillars can decimate young brassicas. The plants will put on growth steadily in all but the coldest weather, and as winter draws to an end, you'll notice the first florets nestling in the centre of each plant. Pick these once they get to a reasonable size, and the plant will go on produce a large number of side florets. You need to keep picking the florets regularly to stop the plants from flowering.

Broccoli can be steamed or cooked briefly in boiling water. It partners well with anchovies, and I often serve it with an anchovy vinaigrette or bagna caoda. It is also good with fried garlic and chilli and some good-quality extra virgin olive oil. One of my favourite quick suppers at this time of year is a pasta sauce made by gently frying off some garlic, chilli and a few anchovy fillets, adding in some roughly chopped broccoli (which has been blanched in a pan of lightly salted boiling water). The pasta can be cooked in the water in which you blanched the broccoli. Loosen the sauce with a little of the pasta water, add some oil and toss through the pasta. Serve with some grated parmesan cheese.

If you do let broccoli flower, it produces an abundance of pretty yellow flowers. When it flowers you can see how closely it is related to rape, the bright yellow fields of which dot the British coutryside at this time of year. The flowers are hugely popular with bees, who are often short of good sources of nectar in early and mid spring.

Brassica in flower

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