What Is Broccolini? And what to do with it

Last week a friend and I had lunch at the restaurant on top of the National Portrait Gallery. We feasted our eyes first on the fantastic roof-top view, and then on the menu.

I looked down through the menu and saw ‘broccolini’ and was just tossing up mentally between ‘small broccoli’ and ‘a kind of pasta’ when, somewhat reassuringly, my sophisticated and well-travelled friend voiced the same question.

The waiter told us that it was indeed a smaller, more delicate type of broccoli – you could also eat the stem. My companion tried it in a dish of almonds, breadcrumbs, chilli, lemon juice, and brown lentils. We both pronounced it full of flavour (I tried some of hers).

I returned home full of the fervour of investigative journalism… what exactly was ‘broccolini’… had I somehow missed a stunning new food discovery? And the answer was ‘no’.

magnificent view from the restaurant at the top of the National Portrait Gallery
Magnificent view from the restaurant at the top of the National Portrait Gallery.

What is broccolini exactly?

Broccolini is more commonly known in the UK and Ireland as the branded Tenderstem® broccoli – it even has its own website. In some countries it’s also known as Asparation. Originally grown in warmer climes, clever farmers have now been able to grow it in the UK. Like Jersey Royal potatoes broccolini does particularly well when grown in coastal areas as the salt breeze makes it yet sweeter.

You may also see it referred to as broccoletti!

It is NOT young, or baby, broccoli. It isn’t broccoli rabe and it’s not rapini… more of all those in later posts.

The florets are smaller than traditional broccoli, the stems are longer and thinner (hence edible), the yellow flowers it produces are also edible, and it’s a hybrid mix, first developed in 1993, of broccoli and a Japanese vegetable called kai-lan (or gai-lan and aka Chinese kale). The Japanese name for broccolini is nanohana.

How to cook and store broccolini

Rinse and trim the ends first. Then it can be eaten raw, or you can steam it (refresh afterwards to prevent further cooking and retain the fresh green colour), stir-fry it, boil it, grill it, roast it and microwave it; or blanch and then fry it.

It’s good news all the way – very quick to cook (two or three minutes or a minute or so longer for steaming), with a slightly sweeter and more delicate taste than normal broccoli (a little bit peppery – so a good substitute for rocket or watercress – and a slightly asparagus flavour).

You eat everything, including the stem, so there’s no wastage.

And it’s good for you.

It’ll keep for about a week in the fridge.

Things to do with broccolini, or Tenderstem®:

  • As we discovered at lunch, it’s particularly good with breadcrumbs. Blanch the Tenderstem®, then fry with garlic, a finely chopped banana shallot, or chives, some Panko breadcrumbs, and some chopped almonds (and, if you want, a small pinch of crushed, dried chillies). Sprinkle with smoked sea salt, Indonesian long black pepper and a little lemon juice and zest.
  • Very simple…boil for a minute or two, then anoint with a mix of garlic, peeled and crushed with some textured salt and mixed with olive oil. Add butter and freshly ground black pepper.
  • Fry in olive oil with mustard seeds, turmeric and juice and zest of lemon.
  • Throw the broccolini into a pasta, almost at the end of cooking, with garlic, olive oil into which you’ve mixed a little Patum Peperium or some anchovy sauce
  • Add it to salads – make a couscous salad with pistachios, mint, parsley and apricot
  • Roast it for ten minutes or so with butter or olive oil, sprinkled for the last couple of minutes with grated parmesan – serve either as a side, or to nibble with drinks
  • Grill it with olive oil, smoked salt and lemon juice
  • Fry in batter and serve as a crudité with a dip or a salsa – green (watercress) or red (difference-making tomato).
  • With all kinds of white fish
  • Serve it in a rice salad with cooked chicken, coriander and lime
  • In an apple and hazelnut salad
  • Rolled up in a thin, cold omelette – you can substitute the broccolini for roast asparagus – it makes great picnic food, knotted up with a chive
  • In a lime-juice-dressed chicken, rice and slivered almond salad
  • In another salad conceived by Valentine Warner, comprising banana shallots, torn sourdough, dry-fried chopped walnuts, radishes, chives and a mustard-based dressing
  • Instead of anointing the hot broccolini with butter try olive oil, ricotta and lemon
  • Almost anything you do with asparagus you can do with broccolini
  • In a sort of Japanese way – for 200g/8 oz broccolini, make a sauce of a couple of tbsps miso paste, a tbsp each of mirin and soy sauce (use good quality soy sauce, go here to find out more), a tsp of tahini, a tsp of sugar and a dribble of dry white vermouth. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds or furikake.
  • As Yuya Kikuchi does in his Soho restaurant, Jugemu, – his nanohana is mixed with yuzu fruit and annointed with squid ink
  • Nigel Slater likes his with pumpkin seeds, breadcrumbs and parsley
  • At the Michelin-starred Kai Mayfair (which specialises in Nanyang Chinese cooking) they serve broccolini with chopped garlic, shallot and lightly salted radish.
  • Or as Habit-breaking Broccolini, of Dubious Moral Character, with endive – follow this link to find out more.

If you’re interested to read about kalettes, follow this link.

If you’re curious about biancoli, follow this link.

Note about the cartoon

In 1928  New Yorker published a wonderful cartoon in 1928, drawn by Carl Rose and captioned by EB White. The caption shows a middle-class mother persuading her daughter to eat her greens, specifically the newfangled and unheard of broccoli, by saying “It’s broccoli dear”… to which the little girl replies “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it”.

Nowadays the phrase has become so famous in The States that to simply murmur ‘I say it’s spinach’ is enough to indicate extreme, negative, scepticism.

More recently the cartoonist Bob Mankoff produced an updated homage to Rose and White with a dialogue where the son is answering “I say it’s government-mandated broccoli, and I say the hell with it.”

In the course of researching this post on broccoli I was inspired to produce my own homage with the conversation being:

Mother: It’s broccolini, darling.

Daughter: I say it’s broccoli and I say the hell with it.

broccolini tenderstem broccoli
Eat raw, or cook for just a couple of minutes. It tastes good, and it does you good. What’s not to like about broccolini?
This post is dedicated to Mary Elliott.
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