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Why You Shouldn't Throw Away Your Broccoli Stems

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There are those things we eat, make, read, and gush over that are just too good to keep to ourselves. Here, we resist the urge to use too many exclamation points and let you in on our latest crushes.

Today: The vegetable game's unlikely underdog may be something you're throwing away.

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I love watching sports on TV. I pick an arbitrary favorite team (blue!), cheer for anyone who scores, and only really watch for the last few minutes of the game when things (hopefully) get more interesting. If I have to sit through the first half, I just fuzzy my eyes and take a sort of cat nap. It's a nice excuse to have a beer. 

What I do get excited about is when an underdog wins—especially if it's a longtime rival who topples the expected victor. Confetti flies, and people start paying attention to the team that was so recently off the radar. Such upsets happen in daily life, too: your mom beats you at Words with Friends, the most fledgling herb in your windowsill planter turns out to be the heartiest after a bitingly cold start to spring, and an old shirt you never liked gets a compliment and then works itself into the regular rotation. 

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Even your favorite vegetables aren't safe from unexpected upsets. While snow sifted over the Northern hemisphere and broccoli at the markets was its sweetest, broccoli stems took center stage—let's call it March madness. I wasn't expecting the triumph of this quiet vegetable part; I've actually avoided broccoli stems for most of my life. For many, they've long played second string to florets, which will crisp in a hot oven and soak up any sauce like a sponge. But if you give broccoli stems a chance, they can be every bit as delicious (and arguably more satisfying) than frilly florets.

The key is to let their natural texture shine: Broccoli stems are crunchy, mild, and sweet, with a good bite that survives high-heat cooking. Baste them in a flavorful sauce, oils, or a vinaigrette and they'll be the star of any plate. 

More: A few heads of broccoli and you're halfway to five dinners.

Preparing broccoli stems to play their best game begins on the chopping block. If you think of broccoli as a tree, which you definitely have, the whole thing is actually a great collection of stems (a trunk and all sorts of branches), save for the tiny leaves. Trim the leaves into one bowl, and then slice the rest of your broccoli into cross-sections of similar thickness; some stem pieces will be coin-shaped and others will look like crazy spilled milk splashes. This is a good thing and will create a variety of textures when you cook them: crispy craggly edges, golden hunks, and soft interiors.

Brown your broccoli stems slowly in a garllcky, anchovy-laced oil, flipping them only when they're golden. They'll caramelize and soften on the inside like little potato rounds with twice the flavor and a friendly trace of green. The leaves go right on top at the last minute, barely wilting, and the whole dish can be tossed with lemon juice (or your favorite vinegar) for brightness. 

A creamy, salty cheese like feta would be a wise addition, or you could pile the broccoli on well-buttered toast—but the underdogs are rich with flavor all on their own. 

Besides frying, there are other ways to show the stems some love. You can broil them simply on a baking sheet, tossed in just oil and spices, or have a little more fun. Here are some ideas of ways to use this mighty stalk as a star in the kitchen. 

  • Raw Broccoli Stem Slaw: Mix shredded raw broccoli stems with nuts, dried fruits, crunchy ramen noodles (right from the pack), and a creamy, tart dressing.
  • Cooked Broccoli Stem Salad: Toss steamed, cooled coins of broccoli stems with any vinaigrette.
  • Broccoli Stem Gratin: Bake layers of broccoli stem slices with a rich white sauce, topped with crunchy breadcrumbs and floret leaves. (Or swap them in for the spinach in this recipe.)
  • Broccoli Stem Braise: For sweet, slippery greens, peel broccoli trunks and braise them in lemon and oil, slow and on low heat.

So quit tossing your stems like a doomed Hail Mary—all you need is a little faith to make them winners. (A quick fry in garlic oil doesn't hurt.)

Broccoli Stems with Garlic and Anchovies

Serves 2

1 bunch of broccoli
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 anchovies in oil
3 garlic cloves, smashed but still intact
A splash of white wine or beer
Juice from half a lemon juice

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

How do you prepare your broccoli stems? What other oft-forgotten vegetables do you love? Tell us in the comments!

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: broccoli stems, weeknight dinner, side dish, vegetarian, broccoli