Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Season of Waiting
What’s cooking? Butter-Steamed Broccoli with Panko and Parmesan Cheese

It’s that middling time of year. When spring is so near you can almost taste it, except that the wind chill keeps freezing your taste buds. But the hardest thing about this time of year is finding something fresh to cook.

There’s lots in the stores, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve pretty much had my fill of broccoli and broccolini and cauliflower, and butternut and acorn squash, which is what’s still most abundant in the fresh produce aisle. Fresh asparagus will make an appearance soon – that would be fresh, local asparagus, from someplace on this continent. But not just yet.

Do I sound whiney? I’m sure that’s right. And not like me. For the truth is that I’ve had the flu – in spite of having gotten a flu shot this year – and even if I’d felt like cooking or eating, my prince has refused to let me near anything he’s planning to put in his mouth.

So we’ve had lots of takeout, and a few meals that involved boiling liquid – to adequately eliminate any germs. But at some point, you know, the Kitchen Goddess must cook. Sharks gotta swim.

I’m not alone in this lament, by the way. Just last week, the very talented Sam Sifton (NY Times food writer) posted a piece in the Sunday NYT Magazine, wherein he said, “These are hard days for cooking.... Early March can leave cooks adrift in home and restaurant kitchens alike, unsure of themselves, desirous of inspiration.” So misery does indeed love company.

And that’s where this very tasty broccoli recipe comes in. I know, I said I was tired of broccoli; mostly, I meant I was tired of the same old preparations.

Often, when trying to figure out what to do with veggies, my thoughts run to steam/boil/grill/roast and then slather with butter. But that seemed sort of inadequate. So when I uncovered this recipe in my slush pile of good ideas, I cheered. For starters, this technique of cooking the broccoli in a bath of water and butter over high heat is truly magical. A new arrow in the Kitchen Goddess’s quiver, as it were. The broccoli absorbs both the water and the butter, which completely changes the flavor of the food. Add the nuttiness of shaved parmesan cheese, plus a nice crunch delivered by toasted, peppered panko, and you have what is both a very good and a very easy dish. Not exactly springlike, but then, it’s not exactly spring. (If you want to hint at the coming of spring, grate some lemon zest into the panko or squeeze a bit of lemon into the skillet with the broccoli.) Thankfully, it is actually possible to get very attractive fresh broccoli in the stores.

I served this excellent preparation with grilled – by the prince – chicken thighs and rice (another dish from boiling water). Not an awe-inspiring meal, but way better than takeout.

Butter-Steamed Broccoli with Panko and Parmesan Cheese

Adapted from David Tanis in The New York Times.

Serves 4.

¾ cup panko bread crumbs
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
¾ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 large head broccoli (about 1 pound)
1 clove garlic, sliced thin
1 cup water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, shaved
Optional: ½ lemon (zest grated into the bread crumbs, or juice squeezed into the water bath for broccoli)

Preheat the oven to 400º.

In a medium bowl, toss the panko crumbs with the olive oil. Place the crumbs on a rimmed baking pan and put the pan in the oven for 10-12 minutes, or until the crumbs take on a golden color. Stir the crumbs once or twice as they cook, to encourage even browning. When the panko crumbs have reached a color you like, remove them from the oven and scrape them into a bowl to cool. Stir in the pepper and salt to taste.

In the meantime, separate the broccoli into spears 3-4 inches long, slicing the thickest ones to make stems no thicker than ½ inch. If the base of the broccoli is a long, thick stem, use a peeler to remove the tough outer skin, and slice the stem into batons (sticks, like French fries) no more than ½ inch thick.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the broccoli, garlic, and water, and season with salt to taste. Stir well and turn the heat to medium-high, then cover the skillet with a tight-fitting lid. Cook the broccoli over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, at which point it should be firm-tender and still green. (Some of the stems will brown lightly from the butter in the bottom of the pan.)

Transfer the broccoli to a warm serving platter and sprinkle it with the toasted panko crumbs. The broccoli should have absorbed all the butter and water; if not, pour any remaining liquid over the broccoli in the serving dish. Shave large, thin slices of Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, and serve.

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