Much like corn and cotija or tomato and mozzarella, cheesy broccoli is an iconic veg-and-cheese combination that we love to tinker with and reimagine. For the latest entry in the broccoli-and-cheese saga, I wanted to create a satisfying vegetarian main course that could stand on its own like a steak entrée and feel just as indulgent. So it made sense to treat the broccoli more like meat, portioning the heads into large fillet-like pieces rather than florets. These broccoli steaks get paired with a rich Taleggio cheese sauce as well as a no-waste gremolata made from broccoli stems and scraps. Stem-to-floret cooking is just as cool as nose-to-tail.
An American Taleggio Cheese Sauce
If you've ever made a cheeseburger, fondue, or a heaping pile of game-day nachos, you're probably aware that some cheeses are better-suited to melting than others.
Without getting too deep into the science weeds (or curds), the general rule is that younger cheeses, such as Jack and Swiss, melt the best due to their high moisture content and loose protein network. Drier aged varieties, such as Parmigiano and Manchego, pack more flavor but have a harder time becoming molten—attempts at melting them usually result in a sad, greasy puddle of rubbery casein proteins. Needless to say this is not what we want when making a cheese sauce.
There are a number of workarounds to the melting paradox, all of which allow us to create cheese sauces that don't sacrifice flavor for texture. We can take the processed American cheese route and use emulsifying salts like sodium citrate to create stable emulsions with older cheeses. You can achieve similar results using more readily available ingredients—like cornstarch and evaporated milk—to make your queso dreams come true. But what if I told you that there is an even simpler solution? All you need is a stronger-flavored young cheese and some heavy cream.
This cheese sauce, which I borrowed from chef Ignacio Mattos' brilliant Estela cookbook, is made with Taleggio, a stinky Italian washed-rind cheese with a yeasty flavor and excellent melting capabilities.
Start by cutting away the pale orange rind and then dice up the cheese into small pieces. As with bacon, Taleggio is easier to slice when cold. Pop it in the freezer for 10 minutes before you start working with it, and you'll have a much easier time. Once the cheese is cubed, place it in a high-sided, heat-proof liquid measuring cup or bowl.
Then bring a little heavy cream to a simmer and pour it over the Taleggio. Immediately wrap the container tightly with plastic wrap. Trapping the steam gently softens the Taleggio, and after the mixture has steeped for 20 minutes, all you need to do is buzz it into a smooth, gooey sauce with an immersion blender.
At this point, the sauce can be set aside or popped in the refrigerator, where it will last for a few days. Before serving, all you need to do is nuke it in the microwave for a few seconds at a time until it loosens back up and is warmed through (just be careful not to get it too hot, or it could break).
The one small trade-off with this technique is temperature—the method is designed to prevent the cheese from overheating and breaking, but that also means it doesn’t ever get as hot as some other cheese sauces might. Put it on a cold plate or leave it standing too long, and it’ll reach room temp even sooner. The good news is that I think this sauce tastes best when served warm, and, thanks to the already soft cheese used to make it, it doesn’t firm up as it cools the way other cheese sauces can, so it’s just as flowing and delicious an hour after dinner when you’re licking up the remnants in the kitchen.
I love broccoli when it's charred, but I hate when it's mushy. When cut into standard florets, it overcooks easily; if your pan isn't hot enough or you overcrowd it, you will end up steaming your brassicas before they can take on enough color. Smaller pieces also make the window for carry-over cooking tighter. Plus, quickly turning dozens of pieces of broccoli in a pan to make sure they are browning (or blackening) evenly is tedious. So for this recipe, I ditched the floret approach.
Instead, I portioned broccoli heads into thick-cut cross-sectioned steaks for searing. Broccoli and cauliflower steaks have been a restaurant trend in recent years, and that trend has led to recipes designed for people at home, but the truth is it's a technique that doesn't easily lend itself to home cooking. That's because making big planks for searing inevitably means lots of waste from trimming the vegetable down. That's waste a good restaurant can usually find a way to use, even in a different dish or family meal, but a home cook doesn't have as many outlets to funnel such scraps. My solution for this is to design this dish with the intention of using up all those broccoli scraps. In this case, I chop them up to make a punchy gremolata that will garnish the seared broccoli.
To make the vegetable steaks, start by separating the main stalk from the broccoli's crown just below where the floret stalks converge. The key is to keep the florets connected—cut too close to the florets and they'll separate into too-small pieces.
Next, cut the crowns lengthwise into 3/4-inch-thick planks. Exactly how many planks you get out of a crown will depend on the broccoli; smaller crowns can be simply cut in half, while bigger ones can be portioned into thirds. No matter what, I trim every piece to ensure it has two flat sides, reserving the scraps for the gremolata.
Along with the stray florets, broccoli stems are packed with flavor and have a wonderful crisp texture. They should never go to waste. For this dish, cut away their fibrous exterior and then cut the stems into a fine dice (cut them into planks, then matchsticks, and finally into small cubes that the French or your know-it-all foodie friend would call a brunoise). Run your knife over the floret scraps, and pop them in a bowl with the diced-up stems.
Little Waste, Gremolata Flavor
When it comes to sauces and condiments, you'd be hard-pressed to find one that is simpler than gremolata. Chopped fresh parsley and garlic, stirred together with lemon zest and olive oil—that's pretty much it. You may be most familiar with it as a topping for osso buco.
This version tones down the garlic a little, so that it doesn't blow away the Taleggio sauce and brings the broccoli scraps into the fold (while this isn't necessarily traditional, it does speak to the waste-nothing approach of Italian peasant cooking, known as cucina povera) as well as minced jalapeño for a little heat. I like to mix everything together and let the gremolata hang out at room temperature to let the flavors marry.
In the Cut I'm Charring Up My Broccoli
The last order of business is cooking the broccoli steaks. Yes, it is a little silly to call a vegetable a steak, but it's not that far off here, seeing as I sear the broccoli much in the same way I would a rib eye. I get a large cast iron pan screaming hot, add a generous amount of vegetable oil, and then go in with the broccoli. It's important not to overcrowd the pan; depending on the size of your broccoli and pan, you may need to work in batches.
To promote an even browning and cooking rate, I like to place a weight on top of the vegetables. A heavy skillet or Dutch oven (with its bottom wrapped in aluminum foil to prevent any unwanted carbon residue from being transferred to the surface of the roast) will do the trick, but I also really love the design of the Chef's Press weights pictured above. They're compact and stackable, and they have a handle, which makes them easy to maneuver during cooking.
Once the broccoli pieces are well-browned on the first side, I flip them over, adding a little more oil to the skillet. Don't be afraid to rotate the pieces around in the skillet to account for hot spots and uneven burner flames, especially in cast iron, which is notorious for uneven heating.
As I mentioned earlier, I am not a fan of soft and mushy broccoli. If you're in the same camp as me, cook the broccoli pieces on the second side just until the bottom stem section is tender enough to be pierced with a paring knife or cake tester without much resistance. If you prefer broccoli more cooked through, you can keep the pieces in the pan; just turn down the heat a little to prevent them from scorching. There is a difference between charred and burnt to a crisp.
Keep in mind that, as with a steak, there will be some carry-over cooking once you get the broccoli out of the skillet. I'm not saying you need to be checking vegetables with an instant-read thermometer, but don't wait too long to get them off the heat.
Once your broccoli steaks are perfectly cooked, it's time to plate. It's up to you whether you serve this dish in individual portions or family-style. Either way, start with an even layer of Taleggio sauce on a warmed plate, followed by the broccoli pieces, and then finish by spooning the gremolata on top. Just like that, another chapter in the broccoli-and-cheese love story is in the books.