Turn Broccoli With Cheese Into a Grown-Up Side Dish

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

My childhood was filled to the brim with sunny American cheese. Kraft made many appearances in my early days of recipe development. I'd zap slices with milk in the microwave for a cheese "soup" that I'd eat while sitting cross legged on the carpeted floor, dunking cold parathas into it and dodging the dog. At one of my mother's many elaborate dinner parties, I proudly served hors d'oeuvres of banana and Kraft-Single sandwiches spiked with frilly toothpicks (the banana played the role of the bread, an early omen for my culinary innovation).

Often I kept it simple by melting some Kraft Singles over steamed broccoli florets. The microwave was stacked above the double oven, so on my tippy toes I'd reach blindly into it to feel if the broccoli had attained that perfect crisp-tender texture before removing it for the final gilding. I'd fold each slice of cheese over itself, again and again, until I was left with a perfect stack of neon cubes. I'd place those strategically upon each verdant bloom, one sequin at a time, before the last quick blast of heat to melt them. If only I had discovered surgical tweezers earlier in life.

Even now I have difficulty eating broccoli without cheese. Green florets just don't look right unless peeking through a milky veil. But my tastes have developed; my cheese universe has expanded well beyond the pre-sliced. Here, a lush grating of Manchego is the perfect foil for snappy florets, the salty curls cloaking broccoli's bitter bite. A sharp cheddar or briny feta could also work well.

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I also like to give broccoli a more adult treatment by charring it hot and fast under a broiler, inching toward the point of bitter blackness. Broccoli can handle all the heat you throw at it. That's because some of the enzymes in broccoli, as well as its cruciferous cousins, are activated by heat, releasing a pungent sulfurous aroma. This effect is worsened when you cook it low and slow. Cooking broccoli fast minimizes the development of unwanted flavors, while the high heat produces sweetness through caramelization. This simple cooking method also yields complex textures that are welcome on an often overlooked vegetable. A trace of the raw vegetal crunch remains at the core, while the florets develop crackly bits and the edges of the stem grow tender.

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Daniel has written before about the value of broccoli stems. I prefer to cut my broccoli heads into long spears, running my knife from top to bottom, ensuring that each piece has a good amount of both floret and stem. Just take the time to trim an inch or two off the stalk and peel it to remove the tough skin.

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Toss the broccoli with olive oil and salt, taking care to massage the seasoning into all the nooks and crannies. An even coat of oil speeds up the browning process so your stems don't dry out before they char.

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Crank up your broiler as hot as it goes and preheat a sheet tray below until it's screeching hot. I live dangerously and spread the spears directly onto the tray, roasting them until the edges begin to char. Then I top the scorched broccoli with black pepper, lemon juice, and chopped hazelnuts.

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For the Manchego, I like to use a microplane to blanket the broccoli with an even blizzard of cheese. The cheese that's in contact with the hot broccoli swelters and weeps into every recess, while the outer layer remains light and fluffy. Toasted hazelnuts and floral honey are the final additions that transform this childhood favorite into a true provocateur.

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