Eat Well: Broccoli Leaf'n on a Jet Plane

The following post was written by my mom who, along with my dad came to stay at our house (with the kids) over the weekend while Hal and I had ourselves a threesome with Marilyn Monroe's ghost. Before we left, I pointed out the unfortunate truth that the broccoli plants in my garden were sadly, sans broccoli. "Oh, honey! That's okay!" said she. "Your broccoli leaves will make a delicious substitute!" And she was right, by golly! Anyway. Twas a little backstory for all you all. And now for the backstory of THIS backstory. Hit it, mom!
Last year was the first time in twenty years that I planted a cool season vegetable garden. We tore out our lawn in our back yard in the summer of 2009 and built four raised boxes framed with gravel paths and after the summer vegetables died off in the fall, I planted our winter garden. Tomatoes and beans, squashes and peppers are exciting to grow. They burst forth in the summer heat, offering their flashy bounty until they exhaust themselves when the nights turn cool. Buggy and bedraggled by the end of the season, there’s a sense of relief mixed with loss as the leggy vines and dead, dried-out stalks are pulled out to be composted. This is when most of the country takes a break from gardening. Temperatures plummet and winter blankets the earth. In spring, after the thaw, cool season vegetables can be planted… peas, cabbages and their kin, greens, beets, onions and other root vegetables. In Southern California, we grow these as winter crops.
Bounty from the winter garden
I don’t think there is anything more lovely in the garden than these cool season vegetables. The grays of the cole family are soothing. I now understand why the French call their loved ones endearingly, “mon petite choux,” (my little cabbage). It’s hard to look at a round head of cabbage nestled in the garden surrounded by its large gray leaves and not think of it as something to cradle with love.
...And there is nothing more strangely beautiful than a cauliflower. Then there are the sugar snap peas. They often don’t make it to the kitchen, eaten by the pound-full right off the vine.
Last winter, Rachel’s best friend from college, visited us for a few days on her way back home to Taiwan. I proudly showed Jen our garden and together we picked some arugula and lettuce. “None of the other vegetables are ready yet,” I explained. The broccoli and cauliflower plants hadn’t yet produced their crowns but were simply covered with huge dark leaves. Jen looked puzzled.
“But look at all of these broccoli greens! Don’t you cook them? In Taiwan, they are one of our favorite vegetables.” I was shocked. I had never heard of eating broccoli leaves, except of course the little ones attached to the stalks of broccoli. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that the rest of the plant could be eaten.
We picked a colander full of leaves and I stir-fried them for dinner. I had never tasted a more delicious green. More tender than collards, sweeter than chard, and better tasting than the stems and crowns that we usually associate with broccoli. They are now a staple in our diet.

Today, as I write this, Rachel is going to Taiwan to visit Jen. Jen lost both of her parents in November, four days apart, both from different terminal illnesses. No one at 23 should lose a parent—but both parents? It’s unfathomable. Yet she has handled this devastating experience with both bravery and grace. She left the University of Michigan the day after graduation last spring to care for her sick parents, travelling back and forth between her mother, who was bedridden at home, and her father, who was in a hospital two hours away. For seven months she held their hands, listened to their stories when they could speak, told them about her dreams, and let them know how much they were loved.

In November, Jen’s mother went into a coma after her air tube was replaced. A few days later, her father passed and a few days after that, her mom followed. Jen said that her father was a gentleman to the end, passing first so he could be there to welcome his wife on the other side.

I couldn't stop thinking about Jen today as I was puttering in this year’s winter garden, picking broccoli leaves for dinner. And as Rachel boards the plane tonight to join her, we'll be giving a toast to safe travels and to Jen—in love and gratitude for the inspiration she has given us.


Six great ways to cook broccoli greens:

1. Stir fry with or without other vegetables. Season with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Or, stir fry in sesame oil with ginger and garlic, splash with soy sauce or Ponzu, and add toasted sesame seeds on top.
2. Roast them. They get crunchy and delicious this way. You can roast with the broccoli, cauliflower, or just plain. Toss with olive oil and roast at 350 until brown.
3. Steam them. Toss with garlic salt and herbs and drizzle with olive oil (try mushroom infused or Meyer lemon!)
4. Put them in soups whenever chard or kale is asked for. (These work great for the Green Soup recipe I talked about last week).
5. Put them in quiches or omelets. (For these, I take the stems off and either blanch them first or stir fry them).
6. You can take the raw leaves (remove tough stems first) and put them in a really good blender (like the VitaMix) with the fixings for a smoothie and your kids will never know they are eating greens!

Have you ever cooked with broccoli leaves? If so, have any recipes to share?



sarah doow | 1:32 AM

I so enjoy these Eat Well posts. Who knew vegetables could be so interesting and look so appetising?
I tend not to have so much luck growing brassicas, but I have wondered about trying broccoli from time to time. Maybe some time ...

I'll be sending warm thoughts to Jen too. What an awful time to go through.

Anonymous | 6:50 AM

Oh god, why am I crying alone in my office at 9am?! Thank you for sharing. That was an incredibly touching story and my thoughts are with Jen as well. It makes me want to give David (he works one floor below my lab) a hug so he can give Rachel a hug so she can pass it off to Jen. But that would be weird because he and I don't know each other.

On a less awkward note...I never cease to be amazed by your beautiful garden! I'm also from San Diego and my mom's been trying to start up her own vegetable garden. Don't tell her this, but it looks like she still has a looong way to go!

Sydney | 6:57 AM

So sorry to hear about Jen's parents. It is wonderful that Jen has a friend like Rachel who will board a plane to the other side of the world to be there for her.

It is funny where our food inspiration comes from sometimes.

Anonymous | 7:17 AM

Everytime I read your mom's columns I am inspired to cook and garden more healthfully. Your mom's writing, like your own, is so overwhelmingly positive, gracefully written, and poignant.I look forward to each and every Wednesday and WWW's columns.
Your mom is a treasure and so very adorable.

Anonymous | 2:25 PM

Jen seems like an extraordinary person. May she have peace and happiness in her life.
Good to learn more about broccoli greens!
The green soup recipe was yummy! I'll be trying more Anna Thomas soup recipes.
Love the Eat Well series!

Lisa | 3:35 PM

Lovely post.
I have never had luck growing broccoli: the heads never really develop. But now I will know I can just eat the foliage.

Unknown | 6:20 PM

I also have tried a couple times to grow broccoli, and have never done well with it. It goes to seed almost as soon as there's a head in there. Thanks for the tips on the greens--so glad to see ideas for use!

What a sweet story about Jen's dad being a gentleman to the end. So sad.

Anonymous | 7:04 PM

Rebecca, your blog is a daily must-read for me. And reading this post from your mom, I can see where you get your talent, thoughtfulness, and grace.

Jen @ Dietplaid | 7:45 AM

Oh man, I'm starting to tear up. That's just heartbreaking that Jen has to go through all of that, especially at that age. One year in college I lost my grandmother, my good friend, my (then future) father in law, and my (then future) grandmotherinlaw. It was a very bad year, but with strength it can be handled. Remembering the people lost is key. Trying to forget makes it worse.

Now on to the food...I had no idea broccoli greens were edible! I'm going to keep an eye out when we visit farms.

Margie | 7:59 AM

What an incredibly sad thing to even imagine going through. I'm sending warm thoughts too. And as for these broccoli leaves, they're just one more reason to be so very anxious for spring to come to the midwest! I can't wait to try them. Last week I made beets for the first time ever, using your feta recipe, and they were so delicious! As soon as I can get my hands on some, kohlrabi is next, and now I'm mining the archives for something I haven't tried yet to put on the menu for this week. Thanks so much for these wonderful posts!