By Pauline Lloyd

This hardy, nutritious and extremely useful green vegetable belongs to the cabbage family (Brassicaceae). Broccoli is essentially a cool season crop, producing heads mainly in the spring or autumn. However, by sowing a wide range of different varieties it’s possible to produce an almost continuous supply of homegrown broccoli for much of the year. Broccoli is usually subdivided into two main types:

Sprouting broccoli

This is the earliest and hardiest type of broccoli, producing either purple or white shoots typically in March or April. The heads of these very productive and handsome plants should be harvested when still tightly in bud, along with their leaves and stalks, which can also be eaten. Sprouting broccoli is usually sown in late April, with the young plants being transplanted to their final growing position in June/July for harvesting the following spring.

Plant a mixture of Purple Sprouting Early and Purple Sprouting Late for March and April harvesting and perhaps an earlier variety such as Rudolph, Early White Sprouting White Eye, or Red Arrow for winter/early spring harvesting. Use Nine Star Perennial Broccoli for harvesting in late spring. (Note: Providing all of the heads of this variety are harvested so that it does not flower, it will continue to produce a crop every year.) Bordeaux is a sprouting variety that can be sown from February to May, cropping June-November and Spike is a quick-growing variety of purple sprouting broccoli that is ready around August in the year of planting. Wok Brocc is a rather nice sweet, nutty-flavoured type of oriental sprouting broccoli that can be picked from June until the winter with successional sowing and can be eaten raw or used in stir fries.

Calabrese

Also known as Italian Broccoli. This large-headed broccoli resembles a cauliflower and matures much faster that sprouting broccoli. Calabrese is not frost hardy and is ready for eating between June and September in the year of planting, except for the variety Toro, which can be over wintered. For an early crop sow Calabrese under glass in March and plant out in April under a fleece, otherwise make direct sowings between April and June for harvesting around August/September. Varieties of Calabrese include Tiara, Chevalier, Corvet F1, Waltham, Tendergreen F1 and Belstar F1. Last year I tried out Fiesta F1, available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue and found that it produced tasty heads in the late summer. More unusual kinds of Calabrese include Veronica F1, Crown & Sceptres and Romanesco, the latter having lime-green, pyramid-shaped heads. Paradoxically, green sprouting broccoli is usually classified as a Calabrese rather than as a sprouting broccoli and like Calabrese is sown in April to mature in August of the same year.

Don’t forget that sprouted broccoli seeds can be eaten raw for maximum nutritional benefit. However, special, untreated seeds need to be purchased for this purpose. These can be obtained from various seed catalogues such as the Organic Gardening Catalogue and Penny Brohn Cancer Care. Incidentally, the broccoli seeds can simply be sprinkled onto tissue paper in a punnet and grown like mustard and cress, if you don’t have a seed sprouter. Just make sure that you keep the tissue paper damp. When ready, harvest with a pair of scissors.

Uses

Broccoli sprouts are very tasty and can be eaten raw in a salad or used as a garnish for sandwiches etc. Florets of calabrese and purple sprouting broccoli can also be eaten raw in a salad, or eaten with dips, but are more commonly eaten as a cooked vegetable. If you can’t eat your broccoli raw, then steaming the broccoli is the best way to preserve its nutrients. Alternatively, it can be quickly stir- fried until it’s just done (Note: it’s possible to stir fry using a small amount of water instead of fat. Much healthier!), or microwaved in a little water. Broccoli can be added to most dishes including soups, pasta sauces, quiche, curry and vegetable bakes. Why not try broccoli ‘cheese’ as a green alternative to cauliflower cheese,? Don’t forget that the broccoli’s leaves and the peeled and chopped stems can be eaten when cooked as well as the florets. Cooked broccoli can also be pureed.

Health benefits

Quite a few scientific studies have shown that diets high in cruciferous vegetables appear to be linked with a lower risk of developing certain cancers. For example one study of 29,361 men by Dr Richard Hayes at the US National Cancer Institute in Maryland found that men who ate more than a serving of either broccoli or cauliflower each week almost halved their risk of developing advanced stage prostate cancer when compared with their peers who ate these vegetables less than once a month. It is thought that certain compounds present in broccoli may have anti-cancer properties. These include indoles (such as indole-3-carbinol), which are known to help to inactivate the harmful oestrogens that promote tumour growth, and sulforaphane, which stimulates cells to produce cancer-fighting enzymes. As broccoli is a good source of calcium, it’s a good idea to consume some (along with other calcium-rich greens such as kale) regularly in a dairy-free diet in order to help to prevent osteoporosis.

Nutrition

Broccoli is a rich source of vitamins and minerals, being particularly high in the vitamins A and C and a good source of calcium (about 72mg/cup when cooked), magnesium and iron. Containing only 31 calories per cup, it provides about 9% fibre and 3-6% protein.

Mail Order Suppliers Include:

Thompson & Morgan www.thompson-morgan.com

The Organic Gardening Catalogue www.organiccatalogue.com

Tamar Organics www.tamarorganics.co.uk

Chiltern Seeds www.chilternseeds.co.uk

Penny Brohn Cancer Care www.pennybrohn.org.uk (Sprouting Seeds only)

Editor’s note: eat the dark rich purple sprouting broccoli along with its green leaves for its top of the league nutritional value.

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 21 (Summer 2008), p12.