Thursday, December 15, 2011

Worthy of Broccoli

Broccoli is just too easy – easy to plant, easy to grow, easy to harvest, and immediately ready to chop up and cook.  Broccoli straight out of the garden is always delicious, a once-a-year treat, yet I always fell a little bit sad after I cut the head off a broccoli plant, leaving the plant decapitated and empty-looking, because, aside from a few tiny side heads that may or may not ripen, that is it for that plant.  Harvesting greens is an ongoing process of continual thinning, and harvesting summer fruits, like tomatoes, peppers, and okra, is a season lasting a few weeks to a few months, but harvesting broccoli is a one-time gig.  I look forward to it, and then it is over.

Usually, it is the wait for broccoli that, at least psychologically, extends the season, but my broccoli grew so quickly this year that I didn't get a chance to anticipate the upcoming harvest.  And this was despite the fact that I planted broccoli transplants a few weeks later than usual this year, on October 11.  I planted the baby broccoli into the raised bed along the south side of the house, where the hot sun of October (technically, a summer month in 2011) created greenhouse-like conditions.  The baby plants struggled with the heat for about a week, and then they began growing in earnest.  Within two weeks of planting, they had doubled in size, and by early November, having already grown together into a mass of greenery, they were growing so fast that I every day they seemed bigger than they had been the day before.

The day after planting (October 12)

Established and growing (October 27)

Bigger every day (November 6)

By mid November, the plants were so gigantic that I began joking that I wouldn't be surprised if a baby t-rex crawled out from under their leaves.  Then we had some good rain and I came down with my second head cold of the month and spent my free time sleeping, blowing my nose, and studying the color of my mucus.  Every other day I decided that I had a sinus infection and would call the doctor first thing tomorrow, and every other day I decided that, actually, I was getting better.  Eventually I was back to my just-a-slight-mold-allergy-because-I-live-in-Austin self and realized that I ought to walk around the house and check on those huge broccoli plants.

Full-grown broccoli plants (November 26)

Given their late planting date, I wasn't expecting ripe broccoli until January.  But there they were, at the end of November, forming huge flower heads.  The first broccoli to ripen was the Packman Broccoli, which produced a medium-sized, dark-green head with uniformly large flower buds.  I harvested the Packman on November 28, which was 48 days after transplanting.   Immediately after harvesting, I washed, chopped, and sautéed the broccoli in olive oil.  Eaten with just a sprinkling of nutritional yeast, salt, and pepper, the broccoli was tender and delicious.  Lee also noticed that it was sweeter tasting than store-bought broccoli, lacking the aftertaste of broccoli that has been refrigerated.

Packman Broccoli

The next broccoli in the queue to be harvested was obviously the Blue Wind Broccoli, which was forming a huge, dense head of broccoli flowers.  The weather cooled down – I finally turned our heat on due to consistently cooler nights – so I had a few days to watch the huge broccoli head before harvesting.  And, though the Packman broccoli had been delicious, I was feeling disappointed, as I am prone to being with broccoli, about how quickly it was gone.  So as I watched the Blue Wind grow bigger, I thought about how I could make more of an event of its harvest, how I could cook it into something worthy of such a huge, beautiful, one-time-and-then-gone broccoli head.

I harvested the Blue Wind Broccoli on December 6, which was 56 days after transplanting.  The broccoli head that it produced was enormous, with a dense center of smaller, lighter flower buds.  I tried, unsuccessfully, to get a picture that really documented how big this head of broccoli was.  Lee and I tried to get Benji to sit next to the broccoli but she loudly reminded us that kitties don't do wet and quickly fled the scene.  I also tried to get a picture of the head of broccoli with a ruler nearby for scale, but the angles just weren't right.  I'll just say this:  it was the biggest head of broccoli that I've ever grown, easily the equivalent of a rubber-banded bunch of broccoli from the grocery store.

Blue Wind Broccoli

I baked the huge broccoli into a Broccoli Cheese Pie because that seemed like the greatest honor that I could bestow upon a vegetable, to make it into several memorable, looking-forward-to-it meals.  I didn't have a recipe so I went by what I knew about cooking broccoli and potatoes and cheese sauces and poured it all into a pie crust.  My recipe is below, and the pie was delicious, but I will warn that it was also soupy when warm.  This is a problem that I have with savory pies, and I've come to the conclusion that this is why savory pies are usually made and sold in the single-serving "pot pie" size, so that the soupy, saucy insides are contained.  My fruit pies, aided by natural pectins and a bit of flour, usually solidify enough after baking (and cooling a bit) that I can cut out a slice without the filling from the adjoining pieces running out, but with this Broccoli Cheese Pie, once one slice was removed, the cheesy filling from the rest of the pie pooled in that empty space.  Maybe that is just the way it is with savory pies, or maybe I used too much sauce or not enough flour to thicken the sauce.  In any case, the pie was, as Lee put it, so good that he wanted to crawl inside of it.  We split the last third of the pie on a cold evening with a strong imperial stout, with Benji curled up in my lap.  In our family of three, there is no greater event in which a vegetable can hope to play a starring role.

Broccoli Cheese Pie

For the crust:
3 cups flour
12 tablespoons cold butter, unsalted
1 teaspoon salt (omit if butter is salted)
approx. 1/2 cup (+ 2 to 4 tablespoons) cold water

For the filling:
4 medium-sized organic potatoes
1 huge head of broccoli (or one bunch from the store)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
6-8 cloves garlic, minced

For the sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
1 cup vegetable stock
1 cup whole milk (or 1/2 cup milk + 1/2 cup half & half)
10 oz sharp cheddar, grated
fresh cracked back pepper

Preheat the oven to 375˚ F.

The pie crust recipe that I use for all pies, sweet or savory, is from The New Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen.  It's a simple recipe that makes plenty of dough and rarely gives me any trouble.  I also think it's delicious.  But, obviously, if you have a preferred pie crust recipe, you can use that.  You will need to make enough for a double crust, bottom and top.

To make the dough, measure the flour and salt into a medium bowl and stir.  Cut the butter into chunks and add to the flour.  Using a pastry cutter or two forks, mix the butter into the flour until the butter chunks are no bigger than small pebbles.  (You can do this step in a food processor in a few pulses, which saves time and work, though then you have to clean the food processor parts.)  Add the cold water to the flour and butter mixture a little at a time, mixing the dough well with your hands after each addition.  Keep adding cold water until the dough is able to hold together.  In my experience, this usually takes 2 to 4 tablespoons of cold water in addition to the half cup in the recipe, but the exact amount of water needed each time I make crust depends on the ambient humidity (seriously!), so I have to go by feel.  Press the dough into one big ball.   Cut the dough in half using a knife.  Press each half of dough into a round, flat circle (about 6 inches in diameter by 1/2 inch deep) and wrap each round in saran wrap.  Place the dough rounds in the refrigerator.

Scrub the potatoes and chop into chunks.  Steam or boil the potatoes until they are tender, which takes about 20 minutes.  Drain the potatoes and set aside in a large bowl.

Wash the broccoli.  Discard any tough parts of the stem and slice tender parts of the stem.  Cut the head of the broccoli into bite-size florets.  Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and sauté, stirring periodically, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook another minute or two, stirring frequently.  Add the chopped broccoli, stir, and cover the skillet so that the broccoli will steam.  As the broccoli cooks, stir occasionally and add water as needed to keep the onion-garlic-broccoli mixture from burning.  When the broccoli is bright green and tender, remove from the heat, season with black pepper, and add the mixture to the bowl with the potatoes.

In a medium pot, melt 4 tablespoons of butter.  Whisk 4 tablespoons of flour into the butter until it is a uniform paste.  Add the vegetable stock.  If it is hot (I use the liquid from steaming the potatoes to make the stock), the stock will thicken immediately.  Add the milk and continue to whisk until the sauce thickens.  Turn down the heat and stir in the cheese a little at a time.  Turn off the heat and season with black pepper.  Pour the cheese sauce over the potato-broccoli-onion mixture and stir to combine.  The pie filling is now ready.

Flour your counter.  Retrieve one dough circle from the refrigerator and unwrap it.  Lightly flour each side of the dough circle and lightly flour the rolling pin.  Use the rolling pin to flatten the dough into a pie crust.  Keep rolling until the dough is an inch or two bigger than you pie pan.  Carefully fold the crust in half and lift it into the pie pan.  Unfold the crust and loosely fit it to the pie pan.  Retrieve the other dough circle from the refrigerator and repeat the process of making a second pie crust.  Carefully fold the second crust in half and cut small vent holes into the crust.  Pour the pie filling into the bottom crust and level it out.  Place the top crust over the filling, unfold it, and pinch the two crusts together around the edges of the pie.

Bake the pie at 375˚ F  for 45 minutes, or until the crust is lightly browned and the filling is bubbling.

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