Veg to Table: Purple Sprouting Broccoli

Illustration: Ellen Blanc

“I’m thinking purple sprouting broccoli for the next VTT btw,” I messaged my sister, who’s been illustrating each Veg to Table post to bring it to life — and wonderfully so, I might add.

That breezy, casual tone, however, was soon replaced by mild panic as the days went by without a single stem of the bloody stuff in sight. I couldn’t find any purple sprouting anywhere — ANYWHERE — meaning by the time she’d finished her end of the bargain, I was still standing in my kitchen, empty-handed and exasperated.

The pandemic has rendered us all incapable of coping with even the smallest of inconveniences, as all of our energy now goes into, you know, merely existing. I had a hissy fit this morning because my tea had gone cold by the time I came to drink it, and another when the shower curtain kept sticking to my left bum cheek as I tried to shave my legs. Work feels more overwhelming than ever, and like everyone I feel lonely all the time. Imagine the stress, then, of not being able to find any purple sprouting broccoli! Can you even!

With little else to focus on, I became slightly obsessive in my search for the elusive vegetable, finding only a surplus of tenderstem. I know, the audacity. I eventually found some when I had to pop into town for something else, striking gold at a well-known upmarket foodhall — the one where it’s obligatory to also walk out with a bag of Salt and Black Pepper Combo Mix and some Lemon and Ricotta Cheesecake Slices. Not exactly the cheery local greengrocer I’d had in mind, but at that stage, it was the best I was going to get.

After finally tracking down the goods, I also later found out why I’d been struggling to source the elusive vegetable while thumbing my way mindlessly through Instagram, where a photo of a stranger’s hand holding a bouquet of purple sprouting broccoli brought my scrolling to an instant halt.

It was the latest post from Unicorn, a co-operative grocery in Chorlton, who told me in their caption: “With the arrival of some much needed sunshine and warmer temperatures, we can finally welcome the first substantial arrival of purple sprouting broccoli to the shelves. We would normally expect to be able to offer this versatile winter brassica a little earlier in the year, but due to extremely difficult conditions for growers through January and February, they’re making a somewhat late arrival.”

Ah, right.

I felt weirdly validated, especially because I’d become almost convinced that I must have imagined cooking and eating it before; it was good to know I wasn’t actually losing my mind, which we’re all on the verge of right now. Looking back, I now also realise I was probably grateful for the drama the wild goose chase had given me — it genuinely kept me occupied for weeks. Thrill-seeking in a pandemic… Unprecedented times, indeed.

Orecchiette with PSB and Walnut Pangrattato

PSB makes an obvious side, but it also deserves to lead the way in a main dish, too. Pairing any kind of broccoli with nuts or anchovies is a classic combination, so I thought I’d use this as the basis for a pasta recipe I now make all the time. It works well for this time of the year, when we might want to tentatively ditch the heavy sauces we rely on in the winter, but don’t feel quite ready for anything too light or virtuous.

200g purple sprouting broccoli, chopped into bitesize lengths
200g orecchiette
3–4 anchovy fillets (optional — you can replace with 1 tbsp capers to make this vegan)
Handful of walnuts, chopped
Handful of breadcrumbs
1 lemon
1 tsp chilli flakes
Handful of parsley, chopped

Start by making the walnut pangrattato, toasting the walnuts in a large dry frying pan until golden. Place the nuts in a bowl and set aside, before pouring a good glug of olive oil into the pan and adding the breadcrumbs and tossing to coat. Once gently fried, add these to the bowl with halfof the chopped parsley, reserving some to finish the dish with, and put your pasta on to boil.

Wipe out any remnants of the pangrattato from the pan with some kitchen towel, then add the anchovies and some of their oil. Fry for a minute, before adding the PSB and cooking for another five minutes or so, or until soft. (If using capers, skip the first stage and simply fry the PSB in oil, adding the capers after a few minutes, being careful of any spitting oil when you do.)

You want the pasta to still have some bite before you add it to the PSB, as it will cook for another minute or two, so if it’s not ready at the same time as the other ingredients, simply remove the frying pan from the heat until the pasta is ready to join the party.

Once the pasta’s almost cooked, use a slotted spoon to drop it into the PSB pan. Toss everything together over the heat, pouring in another tablespoon of oil to bring it together and a slosh or two of the pasta water if things need loosening a bit. Zest the lemon into the pan, before squeezing in the juice of half. Sprinkle in the chilli flakes. You’ll probably not need any salt because of the anchovies, but give it a taste and see if it wants any.

Bowl up and top with the walnut pangrattato, a liberal drizzle of oil and the last of the parsley. You could also grate some parmesan over for good measure, should you fancy.

As a Side

I’ll normally just top my PSB with whichever nuts I have lying around, simply toasted and scattered over the plate. But if you’ve got a bit of extra time to sort out some breadcrumbs, it’s worth making a batch of the pangrattato — storing whatever you don’t use in a tub to sprinkle on other vegetables, pasta, or whatever you fancy.

I also like the sound of this Waitrose recipe, which similarly tops PSB with an anchovy crumb, served with aioli on the side.

The leftover ingredients also make an incredible sandwich — I simply sauteed the broccoli (steaming, roasting or even braising would all work, it doesn’t massively matter), then layered it up inside a toasted bagel with cream cheese and a few fat anchovy fillets from a jar, finishing off with lots of red chilli flakes. A truly successful fridge forage.

PSB, Egg, Caper Berries & Chickpeas

This recipe comes from Elly Pear (real name Elly Curshen; her pseudonym derives from her now-closed Pear Cafe in Bristol), and really is a dish that’s so much more than the sum of its parts. It pairs PSB with a gooey six-minute egg, caper berries and chickpeas to make a really solid vegetarian lunch or light dinner, and the combination always sticks in my mind. In fact, I once made a riff on this without realising where I’d got the idea from, having needed to cobble something together with a worringly empty fridge. That time I’d used a few old pieces of tenderstem broccoli and crisped up some chickpeas in the oven, topping it off with a yoghurt, tahihi and lemon dressing and some almonds. It was only when I was flicking through her book months later, that I realised where I’d seen it.

My riff on Elly Pear’s recipe

You can find the full recipe in her book Fast Days and Feast Days, where she says it’s a ‘great base’ that also works well with spring greens, kale or courgette, advising: “Keep a jar of caper berries in your fridge (they’re a great addition to salads), and make sure you’ve always got a few tins of chickpeas and good eggs to hand. You’ve got the start of a million great meals.”

Curshen is also well worth following on Instagram for vegetable inspo; she’s a pescatarian herself, but shares lots of amazing veg-led meal ideas, and always seems to know how to make the most of a few ingredients.

PSB Gratin

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recommends gratinating your PSB under a thick duvet of anchovy-infused cream and breadcrumbs.

Writing for the Guardian, where you can find this recipe, he advises: “PSB bought in the shops can disappoint. If it’s been cut more than a few days previously, those lovely sugars will be reverting to starch, leaving a cabbagey, bitter note. So buy it during the peak of its season, which is essentially now until early April.

“[…] Supermarket PSB can be OK, but look for a pack with the latest possible use-by date. Once you’ve got it home, you may need to discard quite a lot of the stalky, woody ends. This feels wasteful, but you need to home in on the most tender, slender stems to maximise pleasure. (You could always add the trimmings to a veg soup or stock.)”

Wild Garlic & PSB Pesto Pasta

Many of us are well aware that pesto doesn’t have to be a strict paste of basil, pine nuts, garlic, oil and parmesan, and Ed Smith’s version incorporating wild garlic and PSB sounds like a delicious springtime twist on the classic formula.

Smith, author of The Borough Market Cookbook — Recipes and Stories From a Year at the Market, shares the recipe on the Borough Market website, suggesting that you can use any leftovers to dress boiled potatoes or coat salmon.

Potato, Speck and PSB

Nigel Slater is another favourite of mine when it comes to taking a handful of just a few different ingredients and combining them into something delicious — something he does especially well with vegetables, often using a slight nod of meat or dairy to make them sing.

His Potato, Speck and PSB dish features a tangy creme fraiche and dill dressing to make three things into something really quite exciting. I think I originally stumbled upon it in my mum’s copy of Eat: The Little Book of Fast Food (especially good for work-from-home lunch ideas, FYI), but you can also find the recipe online via the Guardian here.

Posts Saved On My Instagram

Olia Hercules’ PSB in Bazhe-Style Walnut Sauce⁣

Boroughchef’s Roast PSB, Pickled Shallots, Feta, Chilli and a Soft Boiled Egg

Journalist currently working at LADbible, with previous experience at Time Out, The Skinny and others.

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