No, this isn’t a post about the Pet Shop Boys, or Public Service Broadcasting, or even the Prawn Sandwich Brigade (don’t ask, look it up), this is about the much tastier (in my opinion) purple sprouting broccoli. I don’t think I’ve written a post before about one single vegetable, but this is a good one to start with.
I’m not sure whether I enjoy eating it more than I enjoy photographing it, that’s debatable. I’ve been doing a fair amount of both recently, along with researching recipes and reading Nigel Slaters chapter on it in Tender vol I, which I heartily recommend.
Tender is very much the way it should be treated according to Nigel. It’s much more delicate than the sturdier Calabrese, which is the standard green stuff sold as broccoli in the supermarkets. Each flowering head on each stem is like a Calabrese head in miniature, with the tiniest leaves growing beneath them. Which are annoyingly the perfect hiding place for even tinier caterpillars. A bath of salted water usually brings them out of hiding.
Tender is not how it should be in the garden or allotment though. It’s meant to be very hardy, but I’ve struggled to grow it through the last couple of winters. The main problem I have is keeping it upright. It’s a very top heavy plant, but it seems no matter how firmly I plant it (with the heel of my boot), or how well I think I’ve staked it by the beginning of winter, it still manages to collapse. It gets battered by the strong fenland winds, and then a topping of heavy snow normally finishes it off. The plants are a bit like Brussels sprouts, in that any rocking at the base causes them to weaken and suffer, or sometimes bolt. So I’m not sure whether it’s the arctic temperatures or the wind buffering that has seen to them before, but this winter has been much kinder, wet – indeed, they don’t seem to have minded that, but no hard frost or snow. Only 1 of my 5 plants (the tallest) has fully collapsed and will be left to flower for the bees, who devour their nectar. The others have leaned drunkenly to one side, like they’ve been as tired of the rain as we all have, but are still standing, and growing fine. I’m going to need better stakes in future.
So it feels extra special to have this harvest, because it’s my first proper harvest of it for a few years. It’s like welcoming back an old friend. And it’s also great to have some fresh greens (albeit purply greens) so early in spring. By now I’ve really had my fill of parsnips and leeks. I used to grow an extra early variety that was ready to pick in November, but then once the harsh weather hit, it stopped growing, and once it never really recovered again in the spring. I’m sticking to this one now. I’d rather have it at its peak in spring, just as the weather is warming up and there’s little else to harvest except daffodils.
In the kitchen, be careful not to overcook it. I followed Nigel’s advice to part boil, part steam it in shallow water in a wide lidded pan. My first meal involved lots of garlic, lemon and a splash of olive oil as a dressing, the next night I tried hollandaise sauce with a bit of added Dijon mustard. Both were equally nice. It’s also very good in a stir-fry, and makes delicious soup. It goes without saying that it’s very good for you too, I’ve been eating too many biscuits, cakes and bread over the miserable winter, so I have some vitamin boosting healthy eating to do to make up for it.
My attempts at growing calabrese usually result in a whole bed that is ready at roughly the same time, and there’s a small window of time in which it’s perfect before the heads start to flower. So I manically eat and freeze as much as I and the freezer can manage, but most of it ends up as bee food and then compost filler. At least with the sprouting variety you can just keep on picking little and often, and as long as you keep picking, it will go on sprouting new shoots. I think I’m put my efforts into growing this one alone in future.