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Vegetable Focus: Broccoli

January is the perfect time to load up your plate with broccoli, one of the most popular vegetables in the U.S.

With the holiday season behind us, many look toward the new year with a renewed commitment to healthier eating. I know I do. While I still love my starches and proteins, they will move to the number two and three spots on my plate in favor of a larger portion of vegetables. Moving out of winter and into spring, the vegetables of choice will change; but for January it is all about broccoli.A member of the very large Brassica family of plants, broccoli is one of the most popular vegetables in the U.S. It is also an extremely important organic crop for large and small producers and retailers alike in that it provides a consistent volume anchor for farms. This gives retailers the ability to schedule more frequent deliveries (for freshness) and also enables growers to plant and sell slower moving varieties of vegetables that they can use in crop rotation with broccoli for better soil health.

Most of our organically grown broccoli comes from California in the winter where growers are able to move the length of the state for ideal growing conditions. But as we move further into the New Year, producers all over the country will start to supplement the California supply. This is good news for transport costs because broccoli is heavy — not just because of the weight of the product but because of the slush ice injected into the boxes to keep the broccoli fresh during transit.

Many of the folks who grow broccoli for Whole Foods Market have been doing so for almost as long as we’ve been in business. Todd Linsky with Grimmway, Richard Peixoto at Lakeside and Sue Hegar are all long-time, medium to large scale producers of broccoli and many other high quality organic commodities.Quality and condition characteristics will vary over the course of the year but when selecting standard broccoli, the bud (or top) should be tight, firm, and a uniform dark green. Stems can be white or a light pale green but should not be more than an inch or so in diameter and are edible as well (thicker stems can be stringy and bitter). Broccoli leaves are also very nutritious.

There are many types of broccoli available in the U.S., from old varieties like Rapini and Chinese broccoli to slightly newer offerings like broccolini or asparation. All have slightly different characteristics but share the same bold flavor, color and texture of the more common varieties. Broccoli is certainly harder to grow in the winter (like most vegetables) but because the days are shorter and cloudy skies are more common, the plant tends to grow slower and the flower tends to be sweeter (courtesy of the cooler nights).Steamed or sautéed, baked into dishes, or eaten raw in a salad, broccoli is a wonderfully versatile vegetable — and one that I will be enjoying in January and beyond. If you have a favorite way to serve up broccoli, let me hear it.

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