by Matt Gibson
How to harvest, prepare, and eat broccoli leaves has become a hot topic for both foodies and health nuts, as word has spread about the nutritional content and extraordinary flavor of broccoli leaves or greens. This sudden growth in popularity was most likely due to the trendy label “superfood,” which has been given to broccoli leaves because they are considered one of the most nutritious vegetables available on the market today. This distinction is a bit ironic, as the nutritious foliage on the broccoli plant has long played second fiddle to the flower of the plant, with which we are all familiar, of course.
Did you know that broccoli is domesticated from the same original wild plant as many other brassica vegetables? Cabbage, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower all were domesticated from the same source. So it’s no surprise that you can eat broccoli leaves, if you think about it.
Rise of the Foliage
Gardeners around the globe begin to get excited as the last day of summer draws near. This means that the cool season is right around the corner. Vegetable gardeners can start to envision the near future, when lettuce, broccoli, and baby carrot plants start to ripen and become ready for harvesting.
Soon, there will be garden-grown vegetables in abundance, ready to add to fresh salads, soups, casseroles and more. Harvest time is the most exciting time to be a vegetable gardener. There is nothing more satisfying than picking, storing, and dining on something that you grew yourself, from the farm to the table. but are you getting the most out of your cool season vegetable plants?
The most popular parts of the broccoli plant are the large flowering head and stalk. These parts of the broccoli plant are cooked or consumed raw all around the world. Broccoli leaves have long played a background role because of the immense popularity of the flower, get very little recognition as a culinary ingredient. However, broccoli leaves are not only edible, but they have recently been labeled a superfood, and they are chock full of nutrients that your body needs to function at its highest level.
Why Broccoli Leaves?
If you have experience growing broccoli in the garden, you are probably familiar with the long (and sometimes fruitlessness) wait for the prized broccoli crown harvest. Each broccoli plant is limited to producing only one significant head, or crown in its lifespan.
Don’t be fooled by the limitations, for there is much more to broccoli than just the crowns. In the axils of the broccoli plant, secondary sprouts may appear during the full spring (or full fall) wait. These tasty little morsels are perfectly edible and great for tossing into salads, wraps, and other fresh entrees, but are actually a bit of a tease to gardeners waiting on full heads of broccoli.
Though broccoli’s secondary blooms are rich in both flavor and nutrients, they are basically a mini version of the lovely, large broccoli florets that vegetable gardeners prize. Not only are the secondary blooms quite small in size, especially when compared with the traditional broccoli flower, they are also quite rare. A few spring up here and there during the heart of the growing season, but not enough to make up for the long growing period with no harvests.
What does make up for the long growing season is the foliage of the broccoli plant. Broccoli leaves cover 100% of your daily Vitamin C needs in a cup size serving. Broccoli greens also provide a healthy dose of fiber, B vitamins, calcium, iron, beta carotene, and a host of other vitamins and minerals. The list of health benefits of broccoli leaves are as long and impressive as you would expect from a superfood.
The health benefits of consuming lots of broccoli leaves includes disease prevention, cancer prevention, and heart health, and the high-fiber content of broccoli leaves helps to keep our digestive system running smoothly. Eating healthy foods such as broccoli leaves can help the body detox, as well as help to fight inflammation. Broccoli leaves can also help to improve skin health, and help to fight off macular degeneration and cataracts.
Why are broccoli leaves considered a superfood when broccoli itself, and broccoli florets are not? This distinction is due to the high-levels of powerful nutrients found in the leaves of the plant, which are greater than what is found in the heads and florets. Broccoli leaves have higher levels of beta carotene, vitamin A, and phytonutrients than are found elsewhere in the plant.
How to Cut and Harvest Broccoli Leaves
You can start to take your first broccoli leaf harvest when the main head of the broccoli crown is still compact and in bud form, nestled several inches below the tops of the tallest leaves. The leaves will become less flavorful and develop a tougher texture if the harvest is postponed until the crown flowers begin to unfurl, so start your harvest early. Taking leaf cuttings this early in the growing season will also encourage new growth for future harvests.
Once a week, harvest the older, outermost leaves as they begin to reach four to six inches in length. After budding takes place, the head can be harvested. Afterwards, you can continue to pick the leaves until the growing season is over. Like many other greens that you can grow yourself, broccoli leaves are a very prolific cut and come again crop, constantly producing tasty new leaves that remain crisp and tender long after the rest of the plant has stopped producing.
How To Use Broccoli Leaves In The Kitchen
Broccoli leaves look and feel very similar to collard greens, and can be used in lue of, or mixed with collards, chard, cabbage, and kale, though they have a flavor that is quite unique and distinct to broccoli leaves alone. The flavor is reminiscent of broccoli, and is slightly bitter, earthy, and slightly sweet. Their sweetness increases as you apply a bit of heat, yet unlike many other common greens, broccoli leaves are not quick to wilting and will not cook down to a fraction of their original size once you turn up the heat.
Harvest the smaller, younger leaves of the broccoli plant to mix with other leafy greens in a raw salad, as the smaller leaves are the most tender and have a milder flavor than the larger, more mature leaves of the plant. Medium size leaves are the perfect size and texture to stuff with vegetables and meat (like cabbage rolls). Use the mature, larger leaves for braises, soups, and stews, as they can benefit from higher temperatures and longer cooking times.
The larger leaves have a tougher texture when raw, but become tender when cooked. Cooking the larger leaves also allows them to soak up the flavors of the other vegetables, meats, oils, and spices that you are cooking them with. When cooking with the larger leaves, remove as much of the stems as you can prior to cooking, as they (like the stems of collards, chard, and other large greens) are too fibrous to enjoy.
With so much going for broccoli leaves, it’s surprising that they are not much more popular than they are. Popular greens like collards, kale, mustard greens, and cabbage, continue to dominate the greens section in the produce aisle, and broccoli is seemingly only valued for its crown. Meanwhile, broccoli raab, or rapini, a very similar vegetable to broccoli that has grown in popularity in recent years, is produced for its shoots and leaves. Also, spigarello, an Italian variety of broccoli grown exclusively for its leaves, has gained some popularity. However, broccoli leaves, despite being hailed as a superfood, are often discarded, tossed in the compost pile, and left out of recipes, in favor of greens that have always been a part of the culinary cupboard.
It’s a shame too, as each broccoli plant can only produce one significant crown during its lifespan, but if harvested on a weekly basis, can produce a seemingly endless amount of nutrient-rich leaves. Broccoli leaves are not the only greens that are getting slept on by the culinary culture. Other stars of the brassica family, such as cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and cabbage (which produces outer leaves, separate from the heads) all produce nutrient-rich leafy greens that are perfectly edible, flavorful, and plentiful, yet play second fiddle to the more popular parts of the plants themselves.
Broccoli plants take up a lot of space in the garden. They also require a lot of water and fertilizer in order to grow and thrive. Considering the health benefits and culinary appeal that broccoli leaves carry, it seems like such a massive waste that broccoli plants are produced in bulk, for only the crowns, and the superfood foliage is simply tossed out like garbage.