The arrival of the tender shoots of Purple Sprouting Broccoli is a welcome sight, signalling the end of winter and the arrival of spring. Whilst the chunkier, milder flavoured calabrese broccoli is ever present on supermarket shelves, the sprouting varieties are more of a seasonal speciality.
Purple sprouting broccoli was highly regarded by the Romans and it’s thought that it was developed by ingenious gardeners trying to cultivate stemmed cabbage plants. The broccoli heads are made up of clusters of the plant’s flower buds. Left on the plants these will eventually produce pale yellow flowers.
Introduced to the UK from Italy, in the 1720s, purple sprouting broccoli was initially known as sprout colli-flower or Italian asparagus. The word broccoli comes from the Italian, brocco, which means ‘little arms’ or ‘little shoots’.
When you buy purple sprouting broccoli look for fresh crisp stems and avoid any with bendy stalks. To keep the stems fresh, place them in a jug of cold water and store in the fridge. Cooked simply, either lightly steamed or boiled, purple sprouting broccoli is the perfect way to add vibrance to meat and fish dishes. For something a little bit different, try drizzling the cooked stems with lemon juice and olive oil then scattering chopped toasted hazelnuts over the top. It’s also a great addition to stir fries or risotto and goes well with anchovies, cured meats and with asian style flavours. One of my favourite ways of serving purple sprouting broccoli is with this peanut, chilli and ginger sauce (see above photo). It makes a delicious accompaniment to griddled chicken, roast belly pork or even baked salmon fillets.
Purple sprouting broccoli plants take an incredibly long time from sowing to harvesting, but it’s well worth the wait. Early varieties, ready to harvest December-February, include Rudolph and Red Arrow. White sprouting broccoli is a lovely alternative to the more usual purple plants. Specially developed summer cropping varieties are also available now. To avoid the winter varieties producing spears too early though, delay sowing until the end of May through until July. Sow indoors and then transplant the young plants in August. Plant them about 60cm apart in nitrogen rich soil - either grow where beans/legumes were last planted or dig in plenty of well rotted manure. Net the plants to protect from cabbage white butterflies and pigeons who will both strip them bare. As they are quite large top heavy plants, it’s best to support them with strong canes. When the stems appear, pick the main centre stem first to encourage more growth and then pick the stems little and often. The more you pick the more will grow.