For Better Broccoli Salad, Cook the Florets

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I just finished a conversation with my colleagues about our editorial banned word list. I love adding irritating words and phrases to it, but Miranda, our copy chief, is more measured. She prefers to discourage the use of certain forms of language without banning them outright. I respect that, but, you know, it just feels so good to swing the ban hammer. And so, despite the fact that there probably exists some edge case that contradicts me, I'm still going to take a hard stance on a different subject: Raw broccoli florets in a broccoli salad are an absolute abomination.* I hereby ban them!

* Frankly, they're pretty awful in most contexts, but since this is about salad, that's what I'm focusing on.

Think about it: When is the last time you looked at raw broccoli florets on a crudités platter and got excited? I'd be willing to bet you reached for the carrot, the celery, and the cucumber stick long before you relented and reluctantly dunked a piece of broccoli in the onion dip.

The problem with raw broccoli florets is their texture. Unlike their wonderful stems, the florets lack a clean, crisp bite. All their tiny little flower buds create a crumbly, dry sensation in your mouth when you chew, as they break apart into thousands of little grassy beads.

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There's a simple fix: Cook them first. There are several ways to do this (in an earlier recipe, I charred them in a heavy skillet), but blanching is among the easiest. The goal, if your plan is to eat the broccoli in a salad later, is to leave them in the water for a very short time, not more than a minute. You don't want to fully cook them, since you still want some semblance of a crisp bite, but you do want to soften the florets and introduce some juiciness.

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That's easy to do with the florets, since their tightly bundled form means they can soak up and retain moisture, almost like a sponge. I've played with this idea a bit, blanching them in a more flavorful liquid like dashi. It works, and it's not at all a bad idea, particularly if you use the dashi later for something like miso soup. But it is just fussy enough that I decided against calling for it in my recipe here, choosing to blanch the broccoli in plain salted water instead. Once a dressing is added, the difference is pretty minimal anyway.

I start with a couple heads of broccoli, separating the stems and florets. Broccoli is fairly unpredictable in terms of what proportion of a bunch will be stems versus florets. Sometimes there are long stems attached, and sometimes just stubs. This recipe works either way, you just may end up with more or less of either the florets or the stems depending on the broccoli that's available.

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I cut the florets into small pieces and blanch them for a minute, immediately transferring them to an ice bath to chill, which helps preserve a lingering trace of rawness and that great bright green color. (In my testing of blanching, I found that shocking in ice water was the single most important factor in how the vegetables came out, more so than the volume of water or whether it was at a true rolling boil or not.)

The stems, meanwhile, I leave raw, simply peeling off the tough outer skin and cutting them into matchsticks. Then I toss it all with some sliced raddichio and a rich vinaigrette, one that has basil and pistachios blended into it. That's another thing—broccoli is hearty enough to stand up to a very bold, flavorful vinaigrette, so don't hesitate to go big here. Leave the delicate vinaigrettes for your lettuce leaves.

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To finish it off, I toss it all together with more pistachios and some shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The result? Exhibit A in my argument for why banning can help make things much, much better.