The Sixth Borough: When Life Gives You Broccoli Stalks

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:15

An acquaintance sources botanicals for Proctor & Gamble. When you see shampoo infused with mint oil, he's the guy tracking down the mint. He came over to a party at our farm, and a few beers in said: Hey, you should grow stuff for me.

A few beers in ourselves, we said: Definitely!

He suggested we grow purslane. Purslane... while we know it's high in omega-3 goodness, it's such a common weed that we decided, eventually, that a) introducing it to our farm might be a bad idea, because it would spread to where we didn't want it to be and b) if this casual agreement fell through, no one would want to buy our purslane, since it's the stuff you're pulling out of the cracks in your driveway. What else in the plant kingdom was trending?

Broccoli, our guy said.

That we could do. Probably.

I am a big broccoli fan, but growing it had so far eluded me. Last year, I was given a few young broccoli plants, and they got leafy and blue-green beautiful ? and then they got eaten by one of the countless groundhogs that infiltrates our garden through a maze of underground tunnels.

This time, I would start the seedlings inside and transplant them in the back field, the "orchard," as we've taken to calling it. It's a deer superhighway; I know because in the winter the deer beat a muddy path through the snow, nibbling my young fruit trees along the way. But I would defend the broccoli by planting onions around it.

There were hiccups along the way (the paths between beds turned out to be too narrow for our push mower and so were being overtaken by weeds), and the deer were sampling here and there. But maybe because the deer were having trouble finding the broccoli in all the weeds, for the most part my strategy appeared to be working.

The first head of broccoli, Husband Joe and I gazed at as if it were a newborn child. We saved it to eat for dinner when my dad was over. He chuckled at the sight of it. I guess it was on the diminutive side, but I wanted to get it before the deer did.

Then I went away for a weekend, leaving Joe a task list that included: Do something about the weeds in the paths. The thing he did accidentally included mowing my row of onions to the ground. Now the broccoli was front and center, and the deer partook with gusto. Alas, such are the vicissitudes of a farmer's fortune. I resigned myself to the fact that the three florets I'd already harvested would remain the sum total of my lifetime broccoli haul, at least until next year.

The headless stalks, getting daily haircuts from the deer, looked as sad as Dr. Seuss' truffala trees after the Onceler had come through. I texted our Proctor & Gamble guy to ask if he could use stalks with a few leaves attached? Nope. There the mini tree trunks stood, commemorating another crop failure. Or so it looked through my blinkered eyes.

You always seem to find things when you stop looking.

It was an uneventful lunch with a colleague. We got salad fixins and grilled chicken from the grocery store, ate in the office lunchroom, and I took home the extra greens. The next night I got out the half-full bag of slaw and noticed: it was broccoli slaw. Nothing special, the kind of thing you'd toss on a salad for a little crunch ? but it was clearly made from the broccoli stalks, not tops.

Possibilities began to percolate. Stalks are tougher and take longer to cook than the better looking florets, but they're no more unwieldy than, say, kohlrabi. I could toss the stalks in the Cuisinart and make a slaw ? better than feeding them to the pigs, but still kind of eh. What else?

Google had some ideas. Soup, frittata, vegetable stock, pesto, a broccoli-cheese spread, broccoli chips. Bingo!

The stalk was already circular, you just had to slice it into pieces, salt and oil and bake 'em. Easy!

Well. I harvested three stalks, but couldn't cut them with any implement in the kitchen. Clippers from the garden shed? Maybe a saw? Miraculously, the Cuisinart turns out to have an attachment that seems made precisely for chopping broccoli stems into chips. The machine jerked around the counter like an animal in its death throes, but in under a minute, the stems had been turned into translucent coins. I tossed the coins with olive oil, salt and pepper, and all of a sudden toddler Kai started clamoring for "ships! ships!" (translation: chips) and eating them raw. I think she liked the salt, but hey, she was eating broccoli.

Ten minutes in the oven at 425 degrees until the edges got brown. Some of the chips were too woody, and those ones Kai made a big show of spitting out on the floor, but the thinner ones were really quite satisfyingly chip-like.

Joe came in from weeding the garden. He is usually the chef in the house, and a ruthless critic.

He took a chip. Then another.

"You could sell these!" he said. "What's the method?"

There is no higher compliment from Joe than the recipe request. I wished it were more complicated.

Becca Tucker is a former Manhattanite who now lives on a farm upstate and writes about the rural life.