Broccoli, Redeemed

Broccoli with Burrata, Pine Nuts and Warm Anchovy Vinaigrette

In the perfect universe that runs parallel to our own, I am an equal-opportunity eater. I enjoy lentils just as much as chocolate cake, will happily consume everything from chitterlings to gastropods with relish, and welcome any form of vegetable matter on my plate with the kind of joy usually reserved for finding forgotten banknotes in my pocket. And of course, the last thing I would ever do is risk losing my card-carrying status among the gastronomically-enlightened by not liking something.

In this reality, however, things are a bit different. The only thing I would trade a piece of chocolate cake for would be a bigger one, I have a serious aversion to anything I deem to be ‘too fishy’, ‘too gamy’, or ‘too chewy’, and well, let’s just say not all green things and I are friends. In fact, on that last point you’ll find the first and last thing I ever agreed with a certain former president of ours about. Unless you were living under a rock (or in another country) circa 1989, you no doubt remember the revelation that shocked the good law-abiding, vegetable-eating citizens of America no matter which side of the political divide they inhabited. "I do not like broccoli, and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it," George Sr. was famously quoted as saying as he banished the green scourge from the White House kitchens. While parents fumed and farmers raged – and all the country’s democrats shrugged their shoulders as if to say, well we didn’t elect him – I couldn’t help but secretly applaud.

It’s a strange kind of détente, this thing broccoli and I have between us. I mean I don’t hate it in the way that I hate, say, Norwegian fish paste, but tolerate is not exactly the right word either. Cabbage, for example, I tolerate with no problem – I don’t hate it, I don’t love it, but I eat it without complaint when it’s there. Cauliflower, on the other hand, despite being a close relative of both broccoli and cabbage, I love – roasted, mashed, gratineed, whatever. Ditto with artichokes and fennel and spinach and about a hundred other types of edible flora. But broccoli is just so difficult; it always ends up either undercooked and stringy or overcooked and soggy, and those little tree-like tops are experts at sucking up voluminous amounts of cooking water which they disgorge on your tongue like a sponge being wrung dry when you bite down. And now that I think of it, a certain traumatic event at my dad’s house in which a sludge of boiled aphids turned up at the bottom of a bowl of organic broccoli probably didn’t help our relationship much either.

For years I only bought broccoli for two reasons: the first, out of some bizarre conviction that choking down a vegetable I don’t like brings me more dietary benefit than one I enjoy, and the second, when making cheese fondue (which admittedly isn’t very often), since those amazing liquid-absorbing properties shine in a whole new light when gruyère, garlic and white wine are involved. In recent years, however, its appearances on our table have been growing less and less frequent, as I realized a life without broccoli is probably not going to kill me, and is also considerably more enjoyable than I’d expected.

Imagine my surprise, then, when leafing through my copy of Sunday Suppers at Lucques last weekend, I stumbled across a broccoli recipe I actually wanted to make. And imagine my shock when, approximately five minutes after doing so, I discovered broccoli harbors a secret streak of unfathomable deliciousness, and all it takes to coax that out is a few minutes in a pan with garlic, chili and anchovies, a silky white crown of burrata cheese and a crunchy shower of pine nuts and toasted breadcrumbs. I mean really, who knew a broccoli dish could be so crunchy and creamy, so seductively pungent and so explosively flavorful? Mind you, I wouldn’t go so far as to give up my chocolate cake for it, but let’s face it, in this imperfect universe I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would. And the best part? Well, besides the obvious satisfaction that comes with being able to say for the first time in my life that I do, occasionally at least, like broccoli, there’s the satisfaction in knowing that old Mr. Bush and I have exactly nothing to agree on anymore. Oops…unless, of course, he likes chocolate cake too.

Broccoli with Burrata, Pine Nuts and Warm Anchovy Vinaigrette

Okay, okay, what is burrata and where can you get some? This and this should answer the first question, but the second is a bit trickier. If you live in New York or L.A. you’re in luck as The Food Section lists some local sources; if you live elsewhere, you may find you’ll have to do like me and use buffalo mozzarella (FYI: if you’re in the UK, Tesco offers a delicious and not-too-expensive buffalo mozzarella in the ‘Finest’ range). You should not, however, under any circumstances, use that horrible cheapo cow’s milk mozzarella that tastes like wet tissue paper; rather leave the cheese out entirely instead. Or maybe try your luck at something else, like a soft, tangy goat’s cheese? Whatever you do, just don’t let your lack of burrata stand in the way of experiencing this broccoli bliss.
Source: Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
Serves: 6 as a first course (or two very greedy people as a main dish)

3/4 cup (about 80g) fresh breadcrumbs (preferably from sourdough bread)
1/3 cup (80ml) plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (70g) pine nuts
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped
about 1 lb. (450g) Italian broccoli, sprouting broccoli or broccolini, trimmed
4 tablespoons (60g) unsalted butter
2-3 anchovy filets
pinch dried chili flakes
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 lb. (450g) burrata or fresh buffalo mozzarella
1 medium shallot, sliced
juice of 1 lemon, plus more for serving
salt and pepper 

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Toss the breadcrumbs with one tablespoon of olive oil. Spread them on a baking sheet, and toast 8-10 minutes, stirring once or twice, until golden brown and crispy. Spread the pine nuts on another baking sheet, and toast them 4-5 minutes, until they’re golden brown and smell nutty. Crush half the pine nuts in a mortar and combine them with the whole pine nuts, breadcrumbs and parsley in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Blanch the broccoli in the rapidly-boiling water for 2-3 minutes, until just tender. Drain and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil and the butter in a large sauté pan over low heat. Add the anchovy and chili and cook 5 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon as the anchovy melts into the sauce. Add the garlic and thyme and turn off the heat. The garlic will finish cooking in the hot oil. Pour out into a small bowl and season with a generous pinch of salt. Don’t wash out the pan.

Cut the burrata or mozzarella into 6 slices, and then cut each slice in half. Place the sauté pan over high heat. Add the anchovy butter, shallots, and broccoli, and season with salt, pepper and a squeeze or two of lemon juice. Toss well to warm the broccoli and coat it with the anchovy butter. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper and lemon juice as needed.

Arrange half the broccoli on a large platter in one layer. Tuck half the burrata slices among the broccoli and continue layering the remaining broccoli and burrata. Shower the pine nut breadcrumbs over the top. Serve with additional lemon slices for squeezing.