You know those facts on the bottom of the Snapple caps– aka “Real Facts”? My family is kind of obsessed with them. We find them to be a great source of entertainment; in fact, they’ve started many a dinner table conversation in our home.
One evening, I got a Snapple cap with a fun food fact:
Broccoli is the only vegetable that is also a flower.
Fascinating stuff, just the kind of brilliant tidbit I’d come to expect from a Snapple cap. And yet, it wasn’t entirely true. Apparently, this Snapple fact was later updated to reflect a more accurate fact– Broccoli and cauliflower are the only vegetables that are flowers. Broccoli and cauliflower are, after all, botanical siblings.
The cap reminded me that every food has a story, even everyday foods we take for granted. On the surface, broccoli seems like such a run-of-the-mill vegetable. I serve it it 2-3 times per week with dinner because it’s one of the healthiest greens out there. It’s a great source of vitamin C, folate, beta-carotene, potassium, fiber, and calcium. Like other cruciferous vegetables, it contains potent cancer-fighting compounds called phytochemicals that make it a powerhouse in the nutrition department. But beyond its superior health qualities, this edible green flower has it’s own tale to tell. If broccoli could talk, it would whisper of an ancient ancestry that goes back further than anybody can really pinpoint.
Antique engraving of a broccoli plant from “Specimens des divers caracteres et vignettes typographiques de la fonderie” by Laurent de Berny (Paris, 1878).
Broccoli first appeared in the Mediterranean, and may have been biologically bred from a cabbage-like ancestor by the pre-Roman Etruscan civilization. The vegetable became popular in ancient Rome; the name broccoli derives from an Italian word, brocco, which means “little branches.”
Broccoli was introduced to the American colonies in the early 1700′s. Thomas Jefferson had it planted in his gardens at Monticello, and it was mentioned in a Virginia gardening book published around 1765. Recipes for the vegetable appear in several American and British cookbooks from the 1700′s and 1800′s. Here is a recipe from “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” by Hannah Glasse (American edition, 1805):
To dress Broccoli.
STRIP all the little branches off till you come to the top one, then with a knife peel off all the hard outside skin, which is on the stalks and little branches, and throw them into water. Have a stew-pan of water with some water in it: when it boils put in the broccoli, and when the stalks are tender it is enough, then send it to table with a piece of toasted bread soaked in the water the broccoli is boiled in under it, the same way as asparagus, with butter in a cup. The French eat oil and vinegar with it.
Though broccoli was known throughout the colonies, it wasn’t widely available in America till the 1920′s when Italian immigrants began to cultivate it in California.
This is all great information, but how does one turn these “little branches” into a delicious side dish? I must admit that broccoli has never been one of my favorite veggies. I’ve always eaten it because I know it’s good for me, but I never really enjoyed it– that is, until a family friend introduced me to this Crunchy Sweet Broccoli Craisin Salad.
Wow! This salad is tasty. So tasty, in fact, that you’ll forget how good it is for you. You only need to lightly steam the broccoli, which means it keeps most of its nutrients. Sunflower seeds add a delicious crunch and a healthy dose of Vitamin E to the mix. Craisins provide a burst of tart sweetness and color; regular raisins can be subbed if you’ve got them on hand. The dressing isn’t the lightest thing in the world, but you don’t need much and it’s really tasty. Overall, the health benefits and flavor of this salad make it a winner in my book.
If you have broccoli haters in your family, give this salad a try. It may convert them. But don’t call it broccoli– instead, present it as an “Ancient Roman Flower Salad.” Tell them you learned about this miraculous veggie on the bottom of a Snapple cap… and watch, in amazement, as they enjoy broccoli for the very first time.
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- 4 heads broccoli (about 3 lbs. total)
- 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
- 1/2 cup craisins
- 8 scallions chopped into small rings (green part only)
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 1/2 tbsp white balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp sugar
- Remove stems from the broccoli heads and chop them into smaller bite-size florets. Pour 1/2 cup of water into a medium pot and bring to a boil. Add broccoli pieces to the pot and cover. Steam the broccoli for 4-5 minutes until bright green and tender-crisp.
- Remove broccoli pieces from the pot with a slotted spoon and place them on two layers of paper towel, allow them to drain and cool completely.
- Toast the sunflower seeds in a skillet over medium heat until lightly browned.
- Place the broccoli florets, craisins, scallions, and toasted sunflower seeds in a large mixing bowl.
- In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, vinegar, and sugar.
- Pour dressing over the broccoli mixture. Toss to coat the broccoli evenly with the dressing and thoroughly mix all ingredients.
- Refrigerate for at least 2 hours to allow flavors to marinate. Flavors improve with time. Serve chilled.