Down & Dirty: Broccoli, Cauliflower, and the Like

November  9, 2012

Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which Nozlee Samadzadeh breaks down our favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more by the numbers.

Along with peas, broccoli and cauliflower are vegetables that are easy to malign when cooked poorly -- "stale and murky," our senior editor Kristen calls them. But treated right in a slaw, a batch of roasted vegetables, or pesto, broccoli, cauliflower, and their ilk can be downright classy. Today we tackle a bevy of brassicas, floret by floret.

1. Broccoli: By far the most commonly available of the bunch, broccoli is just as good raw as it is cooked. There are three main varieties that you'll encounter: the tightly-bunched kind that you'll see in supermarkets, a more loosely floreted variety called sprouting broccoli, and a variety with purple florets!

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2. Romanesco...Something: Strangely, this variety is called both Romanesco broccoli and Romanesco cauliflower. Light green and gorgeously fractalled into peaks, it's not actually a cross between the two even though you'll occasionally find it labeled "broccoflower." And math geeks, get excited: the number of spirals on each head of Romanesco is always a Fibonacci number. It's slightly milder and nuttier in taste than its two cousins, so plan accordingly in recipes.

3. Cauliflower: When it comes to costume changes, cauliflower has all the fun. In peak season, you can find cauliflower in colors like orange, light green, bright purple (sadly, the color fades upon cooking), and the regular white. As with many other vegetables, the colors are the result of minor genetic changes: purple cauliflower is caused by anthocyanins (the same color-causing agent found in cabbage and grapes) and orange cauliflower has genetically abnormally high levels of vitamin A.

4. Eats Shoots and Leaves, Pt I: Broccoli stems are edible! Just chop off their tough skins (see how in this recipe for Roy Finamore's Broccoli Cooked Forever) and cook with the tender insides.

5. It Was All Yellow: You may have noticed that broccoli turns yellow as it ages. This is actually completely natural -- it's the broccoli florets maturing and growing into yellow flowers!

6. Just Because: Whatever you call them, fractalled vegetables are so beautiful.

7. Eats Shoots and Leaves, Pt II: Brassica leaves are edible, too! Gilt Taste recommends serving them on toast, but you can also toss them into your roasts, soups, and sautes along with the florets. Crisped up in the oven, they're reminiscent of kale chips!

8. How to Floret: The best way to cut broccoli and cauliflower comes from Kristen in, again, Broccoli Cooked Forever. To keep your cutting board (and, uh, entire kitchen) from becoming covered in tiny, hard-to-brush-away floret bits, cut partially through the stem and pull the florets apart with your hands. No mess!

Green or purple, orange or white, broccoli and cauliflower are interchangeable to an extent. Tired of your favorite broccoli soup? Try it with Romanesco broccoli. And be sure to let us know if you try cooking cauliflower forever!


Broccoli Cooked Forever

Marinated Cauliflower

Broccoli Apple Soup

Photos by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Marian Bull
    Marian Bull
  • Shalini
  • Panfusine
  • Greenstuff
  • ATG117
I'm Nozlee Samadzadeh, a writer, editor, farmer, developer, and passionate home cook. Growing up Iranian in Oklahoma, working on a small-scale organic farm, and cooking on a budget all influence the way I cook -- herbed rice dishes, chicken fried steak, heirloom tomato salad, and simple poached eggs all make appearances on my bright blue kitchen table. I love to eat kimchi (homemade!) straight from the jar and I eat cake for breakfast.


Marian B. November 12, 2012
The Romanesco - Fibonacci connection is my new favorite fun fact. I love it when food geekdom and math geekdom can unite.
Shalini November 12, 2012
Beautiful brassicas! I've got a big, pouffy head of yellow broccoli flowers on the deck. It was too beautiful to pick so was let to go to seed. The romanesco numbers fact is infinitely fascinating. I love this series!
Nozlee S. November 12, 2012
Wow, Shalini! I'd love to see a photo of that. I think broccoli flowers are so beautiful!
Panfusine November 10, 2012
Sandy left me with 3 heads of Cauliflower, romanesco, orange & purple and no means of preserving them.. Ended up making a huge load of fabulous 'Achar' (pickles) with them.
Greenstuff November 10, 2012
I have a special love for gai lan (or kai lan or Chinese broccoli), a broccoli in which the stems and leaves are at least as important or more important that the flower buds. And broccolini, which I think is a regular fruiting broccoli - gai lan cross.
Nozlee S. November 12, 2012
Gai lan is actually a different cultivar group in the Brassica family from broccoli and cauliflower! Regardless, it's so delicious -- I love the stems and leaves. And you're right that broccolini is a trademarked cross between broccoli and gai lan.
ATG117 November 10, 2012
I disagree with the contention that raw broccoli is just as good as cooked broccoli. If you have a good recipe for raw broccoli (that doesn't invollve tons of mayo), I'd love to see it.
Kristen M. November 10, 2012
I would have agreed with you, until Food52er Anitalectric served me pasta tossed in raw broccoli pesto. I started making a (mayo-free) slaw inspired by it -- recipe here:
Panfusine November 10, 2012
Barely steamed broccoli florets with olive oil laced spaghetti is one sure fire meal for my kids..They'll scarf down the broccoli in its entirely before attacking the pasta
hardlikearmour November 9, 2012
I love romanesco! It's cool to look at, and even more delicious to eat.