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Garden in the City: Broccoli, a Triple-Crown Threat

 Adventures in urban gardening takes on the mysteries of broccoli.
Garden in the City: Broccoli
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LINCOLN SQUARE — I was just about to write off broccoli as perhaps the most inefficient plant ever when a fellow gardener asked the question that forced me to rethink my stance.

Can you eat the leaves?

If you've only ever encountered broccoli in its harvested form — whether at the supermarket or farmers market — you'll be surprised to learn that the crowns we typically think of as "broccoli" are actually the "flower" of a much more substantial plant.

From tiny seedlings, our pair of broccoli plants rapidly grew some of the most impressive leaves I've ever seen: easily a foot long, several inches wide and silky to the touch.

In fact, this massive vegetation was the source of my initial disappointment. That a single, somewhat meager head of florets emerged from such a vast expanse of foliage seemed more than a little anti-climactic and wildly unproductive.

My assessment of broccoli: All hype, no show.

Or was it?

A quick Internet search of "can you eat broccoli leaves" showed broccoli to be far more versatile than its crowns would suggest.

If I had read up on the plant in advance, I would have known its relatives include kale and cabbage. So yes, the leaves are edible. You can steam them, stuff them, sautee them and generally treat them like any other green.

They're also crazy nutritious. A single one-ounce serving of broccoli leaves has 90 percent of the daily required of Vitamin A, which is key for eye health.

I snipped four stems off our more mature broccoli plant — one flowered sooner than the other — removed the thick center "rib," and chopped and sauteed the greens with olive oil, garlic and a splash of white wine. Add to pasta and voila, dinner.

The leaves were firmer than spinach and a bit bitter for my taste. For a more pleasing flavor, I should have picked smaller leaves, a lesson I've learned over and over this gardening season. Bigger does not mean better.

Once the plants have finished flowering — and yes, they do produce smaller ancillary heads once you chop off the main crown — the remaining leaves and even the stalks can be harvested.

Turns out the stalks are high in fiber, calcium and Vitamin C. The key is to peel away the hard exterior, then chop and use the same way you would the florets.

So, my apologies, broccoli. I had labeled you a giant dud when you are actually a mighty triple threat.